Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, a civil rights leader who was among the last to be with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was assassinated died Tuesday after a lengthy illness, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported. He was 81.
Kyles had been minister of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis for 55 years before failing health forced him to leave the pulpit. The church had held a celebration for him earlier this month, but he was unable to be there in person.
“He laid a tremendous foundation for our family, our extended family, the church and the community of Memphis,” his son Dwain told the Commercial Appeal. “My dad was a person who sincerely cared about people. He really, really cared about people.”
Kyles had become active in civil rights issues taking place in Memphis during the 60s. He had brought King to Memphis to address the issue of striking sanitation workers, although King was preparing to head to Washington to embark on his Poor People’s Campaign.
On April 4, 1968, Kyles had invited King to dinner at his home and had gone to the Lorraine Motel to get him and others including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young that evening. As the group prepared to leave, a shot rang out, killing King instantly. Kyles stood only a few feet away.
Kyles experience was later documented in the 2007 film “The Witness:From the Balcony of Room 306.” Only two aides to King who were present at the shooting remain living: Jackson and Young.
Kyles went on to help form the Memphis chapter of Jackson’s Operation:PUSH, the first chapter outside of Chicago. He also served on the board of the National Civil Rights Museum, which the Lorraine Motel was renamed when it was established in 1991. Kyles also received the museum’s Freedom Award in 2011.