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Wed, 09.26.1934

Rev. Samuel Kyles, Minister, and Activist born

Rev. Samuel Kyles

*Samuel ‘Billy’ Kyles was born on this date in 1934.  He was a Black minister and civil rights activist.

Born in Shelby, Miss., he was the son of Rev. Joseph Henry Kyles and the former Ludie Cameron. He was named for the prophet Samuel, but after his mother saw him baptizing neighborhood pets and memorializing dead birds, she began calling him Billy, after the evangelist Billy Sunday.  His family moved to Chicago when he was 6, and he attended Northern Seminary. He started preaching when he was 17 and singing even before that.  Aretha Franklin once said that her version of the gospel song “Never Grow Old” was inspired by Mr. Kyles.

In 1959, he resettled in Memphis, a segregated city, and became the founding pastor of Monumental Baptist Church.  In perhaps a foreshadowing of Dr. King’s visit in 1968, he met with the civil rights leader Medgar Evers five years earlier at Evers’s Mississippi home shortly before Evers was murdered in his front yard.  Kyles became a central figure in Memphis’s struggle for civil rights.

In 1961, his daughter Dwania was one of 13 black first graders to integrate Memphis public schools. “We did not want to make the mistake that Little Rock had made and send high schoolers,” he said, referring to the hostile reaction to a similar integration effort in Arkansas in 1957 that compelled President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send in federal troops.  He was later arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a segregated city bus.  Faced with the threat of a bus boycott, Memphis desegregated its buses in 1964.

In 1968, Kyles helped lead an effort to gain community support for striking sanitation workers. After Memphis workers went on strike in February, protesting low wages and inhumane working conditions, the group looked to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to rally support and lead the workers' march. King decided there would be another peaceful march when the first march ended in violence. Kyles and other Memphis ministers who had been organizing nightly rallies and raising money for the strike planned a major rally to prepare for another big march.

The rally was held at the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968.  At this meeting, King gave his now-famous "Mountaintop" speech. The following day, Kyles was to host King Jr. for dinner at his home. Kyles went to the Lorraine Motel to pick up Dr. King Jr. at 5 p.m. There; Kyles talked with Ralph Abernathy and King for an hour before leaving the motel for dinner at 6 p.m. As the two were leaving the motel, King was assassinated. Kyles and Abernathy spent the last hour of King's life with him in his hotel room. When Abernathy passed away in 1990, Kyles became the only living person to have been with King during the last hour of his life.

Kyles was instrumental in the largely peaceful integration of restaurants and other public places in Memphis and the elimination of a system of runoff elections, which impeded minority candidates. (Eliminating the runoff helped elect the city’s first Black mayor, Willie W. Herenton, in 1991.) He also formed a chapter of the civil rights organization Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity). He was later a National Civil Rights Museum board member, established at Dr. King’s assassination.  Kyles became a regional organizer for Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns.  During the 1990s, Kyles was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad.  “He was a founding father of the New Memphis and the New South,”  Jesse Jackson said at a tribute to Kyles at the church he led for 55 years until he retired in 2014.

Kyles recalled that Dr. King, during his final hours in Memphis, had left a deep impression.  Dr. King had predicted that he would not live past 40. When he died the next evening, he was 39.  “I look at Martin’s picture, and he’s the only one who didn’t get old,” Mr. Kyles said. “But what a price to pay for not getting old.”

Samuel ‘Billy’ Kyles died on April 26, 2016.


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