Present at King's death, Kyles became ambassador of history

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramJanuary 17, 2011 

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles' life has been a fight for those without power, but his legacy is defined by a bloody moment outside a Memphis motel room on April 4, 1968.

Kyles was the only person standing on the motel balcony with Martin Luther King Jr. when a gunshot struck down the civil rights leader.

"I had just turned around and walked about five feet, and that's when the shot rang out -- Ka-PAH-yah! -- and people started ducking and screaming and hollering, and it was unbelievable," Kyles said during a visit for Arlington's "Sharing the Dream" Celebration 2011, a four-day event that ends today.

It begins the story he has recited hundreds, maybe thousands of times to anyone who yearns for a living, breathing connection with King.

"People are so curious about it," he said. "No matter what [program] they put together, they will ask, 'Will you say something about the last hour?' And it's been 40 years. So no matter where I go, I close out by telling that story."

Kyles' civil rights work didn't begin with King. Born in the South, Kyles grew up in Chicago. He moved his family to the segregated city of Memphis, where he has served as pastor of Monumental Baptist Church. He also worked with the NAACP and in 1968 helped persuade King to visit Memphis to bolster support for black city sanitation workers, who were on strike.

Kyles has struggled to understand his purpose in being on the balcony that day.

"It was too powerful to be happenstance," he said, resting near the stage at the Bluebonnet Ballroom at the University of Texas at Arlington late Friday. He had just spoken to 480 people at a King celebration banquet and then posed for photos with dozens of them. "There had to be some reason."

He came to believe his calling is to serve as an ambassador of history. Last year, he logged 17,000 miles telling his story.

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