With the Rev Samuel Billy Kyles at his church in Memphis 2000
(I wrote this back in August 2013. Rev Samuel Billy Kyles passed away April 2016)
Back in 2000 I went to the Deep South of The United States. I was there to film a documentary about the way the slaves of the Southern States and the miners of the South Wales Valleys had both turned to singing hymns to help them cope with the hardships they faced in their everyday lives. As a radio and tv presenter I’ve been lucky to meet and chat to some of the most famous people on the planet but it was in Memphis I met a man who has probably left the biggest impression on me of anyone I have ever interviewed.
From being arrested for riding at the front of a bus to having a Boulevard named after him
The Rev Samuel Billy Kyles is an African American. He had been born in Mississippi in the 1930’s and had been taken by his parents to ‘the promised land’ of Chicago to escape the segregation and racism of the South. After studying to become a Baptist minister he felt ‘called’ to Memphis to pastor a church and join the fight for civil rights.
We met in the Monumental Baptist Church where he had been a pastor since 1959. He told me how he had been arrested for sitting at the front of a bus because in 1960’s Memphis only white people were allowed to sit there. He told me of how he and his 8 year old daughter had been sworn and spat at by policemen as they ‘protected’ her on her way to a de-segregated school.
In February 1968 Billy had invited his friend Dr Martin Luther King to Memphis to help support the garbage workers strike. Dr King’s first visit had ended in violence as hooligans paid by enemies of the civil rights movement had attacked a largely peaceful demonstration. Determined to see his commitment through Dr King returned to Memphis in April. Billy told me that the trip for Dr King had started badly. A bomb threat to the plane he was travelling in meant he arrived in Memphis late. That night Dr. King was due to address a meeting but with Memphis in the middle of a delta storm and expecting a poor turn out an exhausted Dr King asked Billy to go in his place.
Rev Martin Luther King 3rd April 1968 Memphis
Billy walked into a packed Mason Temple and realised they didn’t want to hear him speak, they had come for Martin. A phone call to the Lorraine Motel meant Martin had no time to prepare a speech but that night Billy said he spoke as a man at peace. He likened himself to Moses; he had been to the mountain top, he had seen the promised land, even though he might not get there himself he said one day this people would be free.
The next day Billy spent the afternoon in the Lorraine Motel with Martin and the Rev Ralph Abernarthy. They were all due to go to Billy’s house for some soul food. Billy left the room to get his car when he heard ‘a shot ring out in a Memphis sky’. He returned to the room to find his friend slumped on the floor. He covered him in a blanket and looked on helpless as his friend passed away.
All of these stories came back to me this week as the world remembered Martin Luther King’s Dream speech made 50 years ago this week. But it was another story that Billy told me that really struck me. Billy said that if you listen to most of that speech it talks about economics, some might even say it was a little boring. Apparently a few weeks earlier Martin had been preaching and talked about a dream he had for his children to be judged by the content of their character and not by the colour of their skin. The singer Mahalia Jackson had been at that event and was also sat just behind Dr King in Washington having sung a hymn a little earlier. As Martin spoke at the Lincoln Memorial on that August day Billy said that from behind him came a voice offering some advice. It was Mahalia Jackson saying ‘Martin, Martin tell them about the dream’. 50 years and that’s the part that we all remember. Economics come and go but dreams really do go on forever.