He occasionally asks himself why he was there on the Lorraine Hotel balcony on that fateful night of April 4, 1968. “I wonder why I was there at that moment in time,” said Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles as he spoke to an audience of 400 persons at a January 19 prayer service honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis.
The event was co-sponsored by DeLaSalle, Mother St. James A.M.E. Church in Minneapolis and the St. Paul-Minneapolis District of the A.M.E. Church.
“Crucifixions have to have witnesses,” said Kyles, who is the only living person present at the last hour of Dr. King’s life. He, Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy were in the same hotel room – they were preparing to go to the Kyles’ home for dinner.
Peg Hodapp, DeLaSalle’s vice-president for mission, first learned about Kyles last summer. “I took a group of students to Memphis, Tennessee, for a conference,” she said. When she first learned that Kyles was among the conference’s scheduled speakers, “I really didn’t have any idea of who he was,” admitted Hodapp. “But I discovered that he is one of these very humble [persons] who hasn’t profited off of Dr. King’s death.”
During his Minneapolis visit, Kyles also spoke to students at St. Paul’s Cretin-Derham Hall High School. “It’s a message that I felt the kids need to hear now because the next generation won’t have those firsthand accounts,” said Hodapp.
Rev. Noah Smith, a member of the Wayman A.M.E. Church ministerial staff, introduced Kyles at the King prayer service. Smith celebrated his 102nd birthday January 18. “I have been introduced all over the world, but I never have been introduced by somebody who is 102 years old,” remarked Kyles. “Thank you for that introduction – you are truly an inspiration.”
“I’m just glad I could make it,” Rev. Smith humbly replied.
Kyles began his 30-minute sermon, recanting the events of Dr. King’s final two days in Memphis. He talked briefly about King’s “Mountaintop” speech, an unusual glimpse into his personal fears and challenges, given the night before he died. “Martin talked about death more than I ever heard him,” recalled Kyles, a longtime friend. “He never thought he would live to age 40. We didn’t know that would be the last speech of his life.”
Dr. King was physically drained after that speech, continued Kyles. “He had preached himself through the fear of death.”
The following evening, Kyles went to pick up King and Abernathy for dinner. “Three preachers in one room – Abernathy, King and Kyles talked preacher talk,” said the Memphis pastor. As he was about to get his car, Kyles said he heard a gunshot and ran back to the hotel balcony – he and others are historically pictured as they pointed toward the direction where the fatal shots came from.
“Yes, you can kill the dreamer, but you cannot kill the dream,” said Kyles in his closing remarks. Amidst a standing ovation, he cried out, “Hallelujah! The dream is still alive.”
“It was profound and inspirational, and it was an experience that I will take with me because he brought us to that moment when Dr. King was assassinated,” said Rev. Marchelle Hallman, pastor of St. James A.M.E. Church, afterwards. “This evening was a great evening.”
“A lot of people just wanted to go up and touch him,” added Hodapp.
“To see him so elegant and healthy, it inspires me and I am sure a lot of people my age,” said DeLaSalle senior class president Taren Mansfield.
A longtime civil rights leader, Kyles was born in Shelby, Mississippi, on September 26, 1934. Since 1959, he has been pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. Kyles is a founding member of People United to Save Humanity (PUSH). Among his many honors and awards, Kyles received the Tennessee Living Legend Award in 1992.
“Things that I got beat up on [for], now they are giving me awards – thank you very much,” says Kyles, smiling, during an interview with the MSR. Then turning serious, Kyles said, “No matter where I go or what the subject is, someone always say, ‘Will you say a little something about that room.’ People are just moved when they hear that story.”
On spending the final hour with Dr. King, “I take those moments very seriously,” added Kyles. “It’s humbling for me – I don’t mind wearing that title of being the last person living that spent the last hour.”
About his longtime friend, “[King] wasn’t a saint – he was a human being with all the perfections, the problems and difficulties that human beings have,” surmised Kyles.
Finally, on his own legacy, “Pioneers very often are not around to walk the trails they blaze. I just feel honored and blessed,” concluded Kyles.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.