Friday, February 13, 1998, Vol. 112, No. 24

By SUZANNE THOMPSON Retracing the steps of history A pilgrimage to Memphis is planned to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By SUZANNE THOMPSON The Daily News Listening to Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles talk about the death of his friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is like being transported back in time. Its easy to imagine the streets of Memphis on April 4, 1968, crowded with striking sanitation workers and lined with thousands of National Guardsmen anticipating a disturbance. The night before, King had given his "Ive been to the mountain top" speech at the Mason Temple, taking shelter from strong winds and heavy rains. During the speech, Kyles said King dwelled on death and had started the speech describing the guards that surrounded his plane when he flew from Atlanta to Memphis. Kyles said he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel beside King the following day, and when Kyles leaned back from the railing, the assassins bullet ended the life of the civil rights leader. "I looked back and saw a tremendous hole in his face," Kyles said. It is the embodiment of Kings spirit that Kyles is trying to recapture with the "Pilgrimage to Memphis" that is planned for April 3-5. Kyles said people from around the world have been invited to attend the commemorative event, but he has no idea how many will come. "Just come to Memphis and experience these three days with us," Kyles said he is telling people. "We are trying to recapture the spirit and the flavor of that time." The pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, Kyles said he often receives speaking invitations to share his experience with King during the last hours of his life. "I had to wonder for many, many years, why I was there. I was there to be a witness that Martin Luther King Jr. had not died in some foolish way. He died helping garbage workers," Kyles said. Kyles said King planned to lead a peaceful demonstration in Memphis, when thugs disrupted the sanitation workers march and King was led away to safety. The purpose of the pilgrimage, Kyles said, is to retrace Kings steps and to complete the march he would have taken. Kyles also wants younger people to have the opportunity to attend a good, old-fashioned civil rights rally. "There are at least two generations, maybe three, that dont know about him," Kyle said. He said he wants to give people a taste of what the civil rights movement meant to people here and around the world. "We changed a culture. We changed laws and traditions non-violently, without firing a shot. And that is quite remarkable," Kyles said. Memphis has never quite gotten over the stigma attached to Kings death, Kyles said. But, he said he believes the pilgrimage is a chance to turn that around. "Lets take this negative and make something positive out of it," he said. The weekend events will include a candlelight vigil at the National Civil Rights Museum, a trip to the Mason Temple and adult, youth and ministerial forums. Registration fees for the event are $30 for adults, $15 for college students, $10 for youth ages 13-18 and free for children 12 and under. More information about the pilgrimage is available from the Commemorative Commission Connecting Community at 527-7277. The pilgrimage also has a Web site at Officials at Conaway Brown, the agency that set up the Web site, said the site so far has had about 1,000 hits. In planning the pilgrimage, Kyles said he been supported by other community religious leaders. Dr. Benjamin Hooks, former NAACP director and pastor of Greater Middle Baptist Church, said he and other religious leaders are joining the pilgrimage to honor Kings memory. "Religious leaders ought to be involved since Dr. King was a preacher, a pastor, a prophet. Sometimes weve forgotten that what he did was based on his religious, moral convictions," Hooks said. Kyles also thinks it is important to remember that King was a human being, not a saint. "If we take Martin King and make him saintly, it excuses us. And we say, I cant do that, Im not a saint. But he wasnt a saint. He was very human. He loved his family and his children. He was always away, traveling, trying to help somebody else."