Rev. Kyles Remembers Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles tells NPR's Liane Hansen about the moments before King was shot. Kyles was on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Tomorrow, millions of Americans will observe the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles was standing next to him on that balcony that day. He had invited Dr. King, Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy to dinner at his home and the men were at the motel getting ready to leave.

When we spoke to Reverend Kyles in 1993, he described the moments before King was shot.

Reverend SAMUEL BILLY KYLES (Activist): He was leaning over the rail talking to Jesse. And so, only as I turned to walk away, when I walked away - I got four or five steps - I heard the shot. And I didn't realize it was a shot. I looked over the railing and people were ducking. And I looked back and he was lying mortally wounded. And I ran to him and saw this huge hole in his face. And I think it knocked one of his shoes off. And he had this crushed cigarette in his hand. And the tie I noticed because the impact severed the tie and turned the knot upside down. And he was just lying there.

HANSEN: The Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles is on the phone now with us from Chicago. It is so nice to hear your voice again, sir.

Rev. KYLES: Well, thank you so much.

HANSEN: What went through your mind just now when you were listening to that tape of you telling that story again?

Rev. KYLES: That part about the knot being turned upside down. I don't know, it's been a long time since I said that, but I was thinking, my goodness, how much else did I leave out 'cause it was just, the whole scene was incredible. I thought I was having a nightmare. But the nightmare was that I was awake. And to hear it again just brought that day back.

HANSEN: Reverend Kyles, when we spoke for the 25th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination, you told me that Dr. King's death gave birth to another kind of movement. What would you say about where that new life stands now? How has it grown?

Rev. KYLES: All the progress we've made - we had so much to do. I mean, it was just so much. Even now, it has not been 150 years that my ancestors have been out of slavery. And to go from being illegal to know how to read to having had two secretary of states, to have a national holiday in honor of an African-American, that's mind-boggling.

HANSEN: We mustn't forget the election of President Obama as well.

Rev. KYLES: Absolutely. Absolutely. I was getting to it. I was just doing it slow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Yes, sir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. KYLES: And I hear some people say, well, you know it's bad now. It's worse now than it was then. I said the only reason you can say that is you were not here then. It is not worse now than it was then. It is - we've made tremendous progress. And here we have a president of the United States of America of African descent.

I am so blessed and so thankful that I lived to see that, because very often, pioneers are not around to walk the trails they blazed. They blaze them and then they're gone.

HANSEN: Reverend Kyles, you're going to be preaching, as you do on a Sunday. How will you mark the King holiday in your homily, your sermon?

Rev. KYLES: I'll be talking about knocking holes in the darkness. It is said that Robert Louis Stevenson was a man who never enjoyed good health. He spent a lot of time in his room even as a child. He was always looking out the window. His nurse asked him one day, Robert, what are you doing? He said, I'm watching that old man knock holes in the darkness. She said, what are you talking about?

He would climb up the ladder and light the light, come down, move the ladder to the next pole, climb up, come down, move the ladder. And everywhere he would light a light it appeared to him with his little quick mind that a hole was being knocked in the darkness.

And so I'm suggesting that those of us who have the strength and the ability, we should be knocking holes in the darkness. So, Martin Luther King came to Memphis - it was a dark place to come, but he came and he came knocking holes in the darkness.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: The Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles joined us from Chicago. Reverend Kyles, thank you so much. It's so good to talk to you again.

Mr. KYLES: It's my pleasure.

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