Speech from reverend offers students in Granite a firsthand look at civil rights movement

GRANITE FALLS -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leaning over a second floor balcony railing talking to the Rev. Jesse Jackson when the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles turned around to head back into the hotel room.

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GRANITE FALLS -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leaning over a second floor balcony railing talking to the Rev. Jesse Jackson when the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles turned around to head back into the hotel room.

Kyles was getting antsy. He needed to get King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy over to his house for supper so they could get back into town for a rally on behalf of a group of black garbage men on strike in Memphis, Tenn..

Kyles took five steps when he heard "kapow," turned around and saw that a bullet had put a gaping hole in the side of King's face and blood was coming from his chest.

It wasn't much longer before Kyles learned that King died at the hospital to which he was transported.

"I have no words to express how I felt then," Kyles told an audience of around 100 Wednesday at Minnesota West Community College in Granite Falls.


"I thought I was having a nightmare. The nightmare was that I was awake."

Kyles is now the last living person to have spent time with King on the day of his assassination on April 4, 1972.

That Kyles was with King in his last hours was due to Kyles' own role in the civil rights movement. Kyles was pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis and had spent time in jail for sitting in the front of busses. He said his passion for civil rights was inspired by witnessing the courage of students who endured taunts and abuse during their famous sit-in in Selma, Ala.

Still, Kyles said that after King's assassination he couldn't help but ask himself: "Why was I there?" He's convinced today that he was there to serve as a witness to King's dream.

Now 72, Kyles spends much of his time traveling and urging young people to pursue their dreams.

"Hold fast to your dreams, because when your dreams die you are like a broken-winged bird that cannot fly," he said Wednesday repeatedly during his presentation.

King's dream for a better America is being realized, a point that Kyles emphasized by contrasting today with the world of Jim Crow that he knew.

"Very moving," said Emily Wright, a Montevideo area teacher, shortly after Kyles' presentation. Wright said she came to hear Kyles because her parents taught her about the civil rights movement and the works of Nelson Mandela.


"He is a witness to the truth of what happened," Wright said of Kyles.

Hearing Kyles' eyewitness accounts of King's death and the civil rights movement was moving to Minnesota West students Jennie Johnston of Redwood Falls and Terra Giesen of Granite Falls.

They said hearing the firsthand account gave the civil rights movement breath and added further reality to a history they knew only in a cursory way.

"If I was living then, I would have been a big rebel," Johnston said.

Kyles will speak again today to Minnesota West students before returning to Memphis. He will speak in Washington D.C., on April 4 to mark the anniversary of King's death.

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