Last Word: The Friendly Church on the Parkway and Paxton Lynch's Mom

By Bill Dries

He came to Memphis in the late 1950s from Chicago as the first pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, the “friendly church on the parkway” in a city that was anything but friendly to the causes of Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles.

Kyles died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 81 years old and in his last years, he came to see his role as primarily bearing witness to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Kyles was on the balcony talking with King just seconds before the shot that killed King and changed the world was fired by James Earl Ray.

That’s how many of the stories about Kyles nationally are remembering him.

As momentous and historic as King’s assassination was, Kyles was more than a witness to just that and the term perhaps implies he was more passive than he was before and after that horrible moment.

Here is a quick survey of Kyles’ role in the history of the city he came to nearly 60 years ago. We look specifically at his role here after King’s death in a movement that was more fragmented, more diverse and more challenging than it was before.

As a personal aside, I cannot begin to describe how invaluable the pastor of Monumental Baptist Church was in the mid-1970s to a teenager from Frayser who was just getting started in this business and looking for answers to basic events that then and now define our city.

He always took my calls and patiently explained things to me.

History was clearly on the side that Billy Kyles took starting in the 1960s. And he knew that pretty soon after the fact if not during those trying times. But his explanations were never a victory lap or an I told you so.

Kyles connected me to others in the movement who were also so generous and patient with their time even as they too remained busy with causes and campaigns in a present-day Memphis that still had much to be done and took me along for the journey.

The church basement was the setting for many of the press conferences, sometimes under the Operation PUSH banner but also rapidly named ad hoc groups. Just once he slipped and got a bit of a chuckle as he had to look and check again on the name of a newly-formed group he was launching.

His children were among the African-American children who integrated Memphis schools in the early 1960s under police guard.

Kyles was fond of recalling the behind the scenes preparations and especially city safety commissioner Claude Armour telling his officers that if they couldn’t commit to protecting the grade schoolers from adults they could turn in their badges and guns immediately.

The Shelby County Schools board had a busy night – voting to close three of the six charter schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson recommended closing. Lots of debate about this. It was part of a larger set of changes for the new school year. Some still in motion.
Here are the basics and the flavor of the school board’s debate to get you started.

The NFL draft is Thursday. And what else is there left for Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch to say before he finds out what happens next?
How about his Mom? Don Wade talked with her.

Ikea gave reporters a look around what is becoming its Cordova store this week. Look for the opening in the fall. Closer at hand is hiring more than 200 employees who will work in the store. The Workforce Investment Network is going to work with Ikea in filling the jobs. The average annual salary is $41,000. One of the first things those new workers will do is begin assembling the furniture that goes in the showroom. Ikea also expects an overnight campout once a specific opening date is announced and is already preparing for it.

We are now eight months from the original roll out date for police body cameras announced a summer ago by then-Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. And there are still a lot of questions about how this is all supposed to work. Add eight months to those questions and you get a debate as well at the County Commission about who pays for all of this and whether the sense of urgency that was there last summer is being forgotten. What has never really gone away is the debate about Wharton’s timing just months before an election.

The line outside the Orpheum for Tuesday’s screening of Purple Rain began forming at around 4 p.m. and by the time the film was shown at 7 p.m. the line was down Beale Street to Front.
Meanwhile, Orpheum CEO Brent Batterson told the capacity crowd before the screening that Prince’s people had contacted the theater shortly before his death to line up the Orpheum for a date on the tour that was still forming.

Signs of generational change? The Memphis Rotary Club met Tuesday at Newby’s on the Highland Strip. Actually it was a chance to let the movers and shakers in the club that normally meets at the University Club get a look around the new Newby’s and the reviving Highland Strip. The club did something similar when Lafayette’s first opened in Overton Square.

We leave you today with some confirmations for the FedEx St. Jude Golf Classic that is just around the corner.

And just below that in digest, a reminder that Wednesday is the anniversary of the fire and sinking of the Sultana, the city’s worst river disaster in which more people died than died in the sinking of the Titanic.