VOL. 131 | NO. 84 | Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Civil Rights Veteran Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles Dies At Age 81
By Bill Dries
Civil rights movement icon Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles died Tuesday, April 26, after a long illness at the age of 81.
From his arrival in Memphis from Chicago in the late 1950s to pastor the newly formed Monumental Baptist Church, Kyles was involved in every significant chapter of the city’s civil rights movement through Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008.
Kyles was known nationally for his role as a leader of the local movement that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.to Memphis for the 1968 sanitation workers strike.
King was to eat dinner at Kyles’ south Memphis home on the evening of April 4, 1968. Kyles went to pick up King for the dinner and stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel with King just seconds before King was shot and fatally wounded.
Later in his life, Kyles told the story numerous times and said he felt he had lived a long life in order to continue to bear witness to King’s final hours.
By 1968, Kyles was a veteran of the defining chapters of the civil rights struggle in Memphis. His children were among those who integrated Memphis public schools in the early 1960s under police guard.
Kyles was a close associate of Rev. Jesse Jackson, founding the first chapter of Jackson’s Operation PUSH outside of Chicago in the 1970s.
As Watergate-era revelations of FBI surveillance and harassment of civil rights leaders surfaced, it confirmed what Kyles and other movement leaders had been saying for years of the pressures they faced.
Kyles avoided being pulled into conspiracy theories about the assassination, saying why King was killed was more important than who pulled the trigger. He also said King’s call and move toward demonstrations for economic equality in the last year of his life were what brought about his violent death.
From the basement of Monumental, Kyles held press conferences across three decades starting in the 1970s for numerous social causes under the Operation PUSH banner as well as numerous smaller organizations.
The array of causes was a demonstration of how diverse the movement of the 1970s was compared to the 1960s.
It was an era in which the battles of the 1960s were producing victories at the polls for black elected leaders. And Kyles’ influence grew with the change in local politics as Kyles remained outspoken about his high expectations of those elected officials.
Monumental’s annual observance of the anniversary of King’s assassination was a key gathering point well into the 1990s for those elected officials. The church pulpit on the April 4 anniversary was often where black political leaders would talk openly about strategy and goals including the election of the city’s first African American mayor – Willie Herenton – in 1991.
Kyles’ role was often as a facilitator as well as strategist.
The causes ranged from local business boycotts over hiring practices, a strike at Memphis Furniture Co. that brought King’s widow to the city, to protests of apartheid-era South Africa. Kyles also spoke out about Memphis police brutality prompting hearings in the city by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in the mid-1970s. It followed closely the beating death of Elton Hayes by a group of Memphis Police officers and Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputies triggered the last incident of widespread civil disturbances in the city.
Kyles worked closely with Jackson on Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. Inbetween the presidential campaign, Kyles worked with Jackson in calling attention to substandard housing conditions in Tunica, Mississippi.
Kyles’ church hosted presidential contenders across the years including not only Jackson but 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton.
Kyles and Monumental hosted Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns.
With Obama supporters in the church, Clinton spoke, with Kyles insisting later that Obama was welcome to speak at the church as well.
Funeral services had not been announced by the Kyles family as of Tuesday evening.