Dream, step out of box, MLK friend urges here

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 13, 2004

[1/14/04]Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life is an example of what a person with a dream can accomplish, an associate of the civil rights leader said here Monday.

The Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, who was 5 feet from King when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, talked to Vicksburg Junior High School eighth-graders and others gathered at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District offices.

“Dreamers are the people who make the world go around,” Kyles said. “The dreamers. They’re the ones who are not afraid to step outside of the box. They don’t have any fear of just doing that.”

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Kyles spoke of King’s dream “that one day my four children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.” He compared it to the dreams of others who faced “dreambusters” yet persevered.

“Suppose the Wright brothers had given up,” Kyles said of the inventors of the airplane, who were doubted by many before they succeeded.

King’s “dream when he expressed it was as foreign to people as the airplane dream,” Kyles said.

“Hold fast to your dreams.”

The son of a Shelby minister of four churches, Kyles grew up in Chicago and has served as the pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis since 1968. He spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people in the Vicksburg Corps’ third annual public program. Jan. 19 is a state and federal holiday honoring King’s birthday, and schools, city, county, state and federal offices will be closed.

King, a Georgian minister, was 39 when shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. He was in Memphis to mediate a garbage workers’ strike there.

In 1969, James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination. Sentenced to 99 years in prison, he died in Nashville in 1998 at age 70.

In December 1999, members of King’s family won a civil-trial jury verdict that a conspiracy existed in King’s death.

King, Kyles and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy spent the last hour of King’s life in “light conversation” in room 306 of the motel, Kyles said. Abernathy, who with King and others co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 to organize nonviolent protest, died in 1990.

The group was to eat a 6 o’clock dinner in Kyles’ home when the shooting happened, he said.

King was distressed that an earlier attempt at a Memphis protest had turned violent, Kyles said. With plans for what became a march on Washington, King returned for a second try at leading a peaceful march in Memphis, Kyles said.

“So he said, if we don’t have a peaceful march in Memphis, we can’t go to Washington,” Kyles testified during the civil trial. “And so we determined that he determined that he would come back. That’s how all the staff happened to have been in Memphis at the time of the assassination because he sent the staff in to workshop Memphis so we could have a peaceful march.”

The night before, King had delivered his famous “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop” sermon.

“The mountaintop’ speech almost didn’t happen,” Kyles said. King had sent Abernathy and him to lead the meeting, Kyles said. A large crowd had gathered even with tornado-threatening weather, however, and the crowd clearly expected King, Kyles said.

Kyles noted the progress that has been made in race relations in America over the past 150 years, citing Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice as examples of black people who hold positions of national and international influence.

Kyles said when he moved to Memphis in 1959 “everything was segregated.”

Kyles’ daughter was one of 13 children who were the first blacks to attend Memphis public schools, he said.

“Now, everything is integrated,” he said of the Tennessee city where he still lives. “We have an African-American mayor for the city, we have an African-American accountant and the city is not broke, but there are still problems, and there will always be problems. They don’t necessarily need to be racial.”

For the first time in Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s administration, the city council recently declined to approve four or five of his appointees, and city council members did not vote along racial lines, Kyles said.

“To have an issue that big the newspapers had it every day and it not be racial in Memphis is absolutely a sign of progress,” he said.