January 24, 2011
For immediate release
Contact: Caroline Jenkins Hanna
Director of Media Relations
AMHERST, Mass.—The Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, a veteran civil rights activist and close confidante of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., will lead the annual multifaith service in celebration of the life and works of Dr. King starting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 8, in Johnson Chapel at Amherst College.
The event, which is free and open to the public, will include music performed by the Amherst College Gospel Choir and the Amherst College Choral Society, readings from Dr. King’s writings and an address by Kyles, who spent the last hour of Dr. King’s life with him.
Kyles was born in Shelby, Miss., on Sept. 26, 1934. A longtime leader in the civil rights movement, he has been pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., since 1959.
After Memphis sanitation workers went on strike in February of 1968 to protest low wages and inhumane working conditions, Kyles helped to form and lead the effort to gain community support for the striking workers; part of that effort involved persuading Dr. King to support the strike. His success resulted in Dr. King coming to Memphis and leading a major march that ended uncharacteristically in violence that, it was later learned, was caused by paid provocateurs. Before this fact was known, however, Dr. King’s disappointment with the violent ending of the march soon gave way to his determination to hold another peaceful march. He returned to Memphis, where Kyles and several ministers and civic leaders, who had been putting together nightly rallies and raising money for the strike, organized a major rally in preparation for another big march. The rally was held at Mason Temple, the unofficial headquarters for the protest activity, on April 3, 1968.
It was on that evening, marked by active thunderstorms, that an enthusiastic, packed crowd heard Dr. King give what has come to be known as the “Mountaintop” speech. In it, he gave an unusual glimpse into his personal fears and challenges, as well as his prophetic insights into his own fate. The next day Kyles and his family planned to host Dr. King at their home for a home-cooked meal. Dr. King was assassinated as he and his entourage prepared to go to the Kyles’ home. Dr. King spent the last hour of his life with Kyles and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy in his room at the Lorraine Motel. Abernathy has since passed on, leaving Kyles as the only living person who actually spent the last hour of Dr. King’s life with him.
Kyles has maintained his involvement with civil rights work since the 1960s. A member of several civic and professional organizations, he helped found the National Board of People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) and serves as the executive director of Rainbow-PUSH-Memphis and the executive producer of Rainbow-PUSH WLOK Radio. He also worked on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns and was a delegate to the First African National Congress. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad.
Kyles has appeared in several television documentaries about the life and assassination of Dr. King and has toured the country extensively, speaking on Dr. King and his message. He has received many honors and awards, including the Tennessee Living Legend Award in 1992.
Kyle’s lecture is made possible by the college’s Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee.