Samuel "Billy" Kyles
National Visionary

Born in Shelby, Mississippi, on September 26, 1934

Minister, Civil Rights Leader, eyewitness to
Martin Luther King’s assassination


Distinguished national speaker, pastor and civil rights leader, the reverend Samuel Billy Kyles is recognized as a both a participant in, and a valuable resource on, the Civil Rights Movement. An eyewitness to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Kyles is the last remaining person to have spent the final hour of Dr. King's life with him.

            The Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles was born in Shelby, Mississippi, on September 26, 1934 to Ludie "Queen" Kyles and Rev. Joseph Henry Kyles. Young Kyles started preaching at the age of 17 and moved to Memphis in his mid twenties to lead the Monumental Baptist Church in 1959. Kyles quickly became a member of his local NAACP branch and joined 100 other pastors in the fight for racial equality and the desegregation of Memphis. He led protests in Memphis, which challenged the segregations of the local parks and local bus system which resulted in his arrest.  

Kyles as a young man

In 1968, Kyles helped form and 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. When the first march ended in violence, King decided there would be another peaceful march. Kyles, along with 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. It was at this meeting that King gave his now famous "mountaintop" speech, foreshadowing his own assassination. The following day, Kyles was to host King for dinner at his home. Kyles went to the Lorraine Motel to pick up his dinner guest 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.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife

After the Civil Rights Movement, Kyles continued his involvement in the church and civil rights work. During the early 1970s, he became a founding member of the National Board of Operation Push and the executive director of Rainbow Push in Memphis, working with its founder, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Kyles went on to be a regional organizer for 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. In 1992, Kyles was recognized with the Tennessee Living Legend Award.

Kyles has appeared in several documentaries about the life and assassination of King and has toured the country, speaking about King's life and legacy. Kyles lives with his wife Aurelia; the couple has five children and five grandchildren.


Time.com - Rev. Kyles rememebers MLK's assassination

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/kylessamuel