The Memphis minister who was only feet away from Martin Luther King on the night the civil rights icon was slain at the Lorraine Motel and who had planned on being Dr. King’s dinner host that night in 1968, has passed away, 49 years later.
The 82-year-old Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles died Tuesday evening at Baptist East Hospital. Born in Mississippi, he was raised in Chicago and came to Memphis in 1959 to become pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, where he served until ill health forced his retirement in 2014.
Kyles never stopped being a pivotal local figure, involved in virtually every cause that, as he saw it, benefited the struggle for rights and dignity of black Memphians.
But, from the night of that tragedy in Memphis on, Kyles, who was already involved with the national civil rights movement, became one of its essential figures — the source of anecdotes from and about the martyred hero and a permanent testament to his memory.
In 1993 I was one of several local media figures who traveled with a group of Memphians, mainly African Americans, in a Memphis-in-May-sponsored tour of the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) in West Africa. Rev. Kyles and his delightful wife Aurelia were in the group.
From time to time the tour bus would be stopped to allow Kyles, whose memory had been jogged by this or that sight along the road, to relate some little-known incident in King’s life and ministry.
Nobody begrudged those moments. Collectively, they were something like a seminar. In 2008, Kyles and his chronicler’s role were the subjects of an Academy Award-nominated film, The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306
But, for all his national and international renown, Kyles continued to be an energetic preacher and pastor for his home congregation and a vital member of the Memphis community, a participant in all kinds of ecumenical, multi-ethnic citizen efforts, and someone sure to be involved as one of the leaders of any development aimed at raising the condition of his fellow African Americans.
Upon hearing of Kyles’ passing, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland released this statement: “I am saddened tonight to learn of the passing of Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, truly a civil rights icon. I was fortunate to get to know him and visit his church, and will always treasure his commitment to Memphis and to the cause of civil rights.”
9th District Congressman Steve Cohen said, "“Reverend Kyles was a legendary clergyman and civil rights advocate. I extend my sympathies to his devoted wife and wonderful children.”
Other testaments are sure to pour in, not only from the numerous Memphians who knew and respected Kyles, but from admirers around the world.