On March 29, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his team of ministers traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to support sanitation workers. Later that week, on April 3, 1968, he spoke at rally at Mason Temple, the central headquarters of the Church of God in Christ Pentecostal Church. The building is named for Bishop Charles Harrison Mason the founder of the Church of God in Christ.
Black sanitation workers in Memphis, were discriminated in hiring, pay, sick time and discriminated against when bad weather shortened the work day. White city workers, however, were paid for the whole day, on days of inclement weather. Even working an entire month, pay was so low they could still qualify for welfare benefits. At that rally on April 3rd, Dr. King give his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech, and he talked of death threats.
Local Black leaders worked with Dr. King’s delegation, the city and striking workers trying to resolve issues and mediate for the striking workers. A native of Memphis, Judge Benjamin Hooks and local minister Samuel “Billy” Kyles, of Monumental Baptist Church were instrumental in attempting to facilitate workers demands.
Benjamin Hooks (January 31, 1925 – April 15, 2010) was a judge in Memphis. Hooks often recounted the dire conditions of sanitation workers since that rally and until his death. He was a native of Memphis, and one of the first black attorneys in the area. Hooks would later became executive director of the NAACP (appointed; November 6, 1976; serving from 1977 until 1992). In 1972, Hooks was appointed as one of the five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by President Richard Nixon.
Rev. Kyles served as a host for Dr. King and his entourage (including Rev. Abernathy and Jesse Jackson), and was the man standing next to Dr. King when he was shot. Rev. Kyles was born in Shelby, Mississippi in 1934. He and his family moved to Chicago when he was 6 years old, but he returned south in 1959 to become the pastor of Monumental Baptist Church.
Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles is most famous for being the only man on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. The iconic photo of Dr. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and Rev. Hosea Williams was taken the day before on April 3, 1968.
In the 2008 the 32 minute documentary, “The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306” (shown in full below), Rev. Kyles recounts the change in Dr. King’s agenda. To postpone a direct confrontation centering on economic needs and create a tent city in Washington, D.C., the formulation of the Poor People’s Campaign. Instead he made his way to Memphis and assist the sanitation workers.
Rev. Billy Kyles, tells the story of that fateful afternoon when he arrived to pick up Dr. King’s group and drive them to his house for dinner. Rev. Abernathy entered room 306, which he shared with Dr. King, to shave for dinner, while Rev. Kyles and Dr. King waited. They spoke with Jesse Jackson who was in the courtyard below. Kyles stepped to one side and the bullet from a rifle hit Dr. King. Fired from a room at a boarding house nearby. At 6:01 pm Rev. Kyles ran into the room to call for an ambulance. Dr. King was pronounced dead at 7:01 pm at St.Joseph’s hospital.
There are those who believe in the conspiracy surrounding the assassination of Dr. King. Did Rev. Kyles conspire with someone as per Dick Gregory’s (comedian, civil rights activist, social critic writer and conspiracy theorist) suggests, stepping aside to give the shooter a clear shot?
Through the insuing years, Rev. Kyles became very active in the civil rights movement. Later when the Dalai Lama visited Memphis, Rev. Kyles recalled how moved the Dalai Lama was to be standing on the same spot with the man who was with King at his assassination. Rev. Kyles was honored with a Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum, and formed the Memphis chapter of Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH in 1974.
President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning for April 7, 1968, three days after the assassination. Public libraries, museums, business and schools were closed to honor Dr. King. Even the 40th annual Academy Awards ceremony had to be rescheduled.
Rev. Kyles has spent decades recounting his story. Every time at every event, Rev. Kyles tells the story the same way. The damage to Dr. King’s body, the phone call to the motel front desk and stepping out of the line of fire. Carrying the burden of standing next to Dr. King, has haunted him, his family and church congregation, especially in light of the weak conspiracy theories that never seem to have gone away. After 55 years as the pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, Rev. Kyles retired on October 31, 2014, at 80 years old, he’s been in poor health.
"The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306", a documentary that honored the 40th annual remembrance of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The film received the 2008 Academy Award Nomination.