A stalwart soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles has died at his Memphis, Tennessee, home, he was 82. Kyles‘s was a leading member of Dr. Martin L. King Jr’s inner circle was standing with Dr. King on balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when the fatal shot took King’s life. As the events of the assignations caused turmoil and a media blitz, Kyle was one of the men who took action. The hotel operator had suffered a heart attack at the switchboard and Kyle took over the handling of the media and calls from others in the movement during the chaos.
A devout and Christian man of God, Kyle started his ministry at 17 and went on to become the head pastor at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis for 55 years. Originally born in Shelby, Mississippi, Kyles moved to Memphis in 1959 and was an active part of the Black community and protester against racial injustice. As a member of the Memphis NAACP, Kyles was part of a group of 100 pastors who were instrumental in challenging segregation in city parks and on the bus line. His activism resulted in multiple arrests by the Memphis city government. This struggle bought him in contact with the national movement led by Dr. King and was a part of multiple historic events, including the March on Washington. But the two also had a strong personal friendship that lasted until the time of King’s assassination in 1968. Kyle was part of the leadership that brought King to the city to speak on behalf of sanitation workers’ rights. Things were tense in the city and there was a U.S. military presence including an Army Intelligence unit. Kyles described the actual shooting many interviews and stated that he heard a boom, “I turned and looked. He had been knocked from the railing back onto the floor. Much of his face had been torn off. Blood was everywhere. I ran back out and the police were coming. I told them to call an ambulance on the police radio. Dr. King has been shot.”
After the death of King, Kyles continued his work with the church and civil rights. He was a founding member of the National Board of Operation PUSH and the executive director of Rainbow PUSH in Memphis. During the presidential run of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, he was a regional organizer for Jackson in 1984 and 1988. In the 1990s Kyles was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. These tittles did not keep him from his work in Memphis at his church.
Kyles had been in poor health over the past year and was surrounded by family and friends when he died.