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Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, “Witness for Dr. King” and Christ, Dies at Age 81

Headshot of Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles

Reverend Kyles visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute in January 2009.

Apr 29 2016

Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles passed away on Tuesday, 26 April 2016. He was surrounded by friends and family in Memphis, Tennessee.

A preacher who worked for justice, Kyles is remembered as a modest, heroic, and loyal man. He was also present when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

In 1934, Reverend Joseph Henry Kyles and Ludie “Queen” Kyles welcomed their son Samuel into the world. Given to baptizing pets, Samuel earned the nickname “Billy” (after evangelist Billy Sunday) when he was quite young.

When Kyles was six, the family moved from Shelby, Mississippi, to Chicago. Prior to his preaching days, Kyles gained acclaim for his singing talents. He sang with the likes of Sam Cooke and was a source of inspiration for Aretha Franklin.

At age seventeen, Kyles knew he wanted to become a preacher. After finishing school and seminary, Kyles began preaching in Memphis in 1959. He continued to do so every year for 55 years and was “the founding pastor of Monumental Baptist Church.”

An NAACP member, Reverend Kyles played an instrumental role in ending segregation on Memphis buses. He advocated for school desegregation, voting rights, and African American public officials.

On 4 April 1968, Reverend Kyles witnessed King’s death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Reflecting on the tragic moment, Reverend Kyles remarked, “Over the years, God has revealed to me why I was there. Crucifixions have to have witnesses.”

King, Reverend Kyles recalled, “taught us how to preach to the whole person and to challenge wrong wherever you find it.” Reverend Kyles continued his work for civil rights after King’s death. He supported Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH and monitored South Africa’s post-apartheid elections, among other accomplishments.

The beloved pastor and civil rights leader retired from the public eye two years ago, as age and illness took their toll. He is survived by his wife, Aurelia, and many loving family members, including his daughter Dwania, son Dwain, and nephew Joseph.

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