In The News

Church honors civil rights leader Kyles

By April 4, 2016 Comments

MAM youth Lynnette Rockett honored 

The Commercial Appeal, Local News, April 4, 2016

By Jody Callahan
Lynette, her mentor Kasey and her sister

Lynette, her mentor Kasey and her sister Delora love hanging out at MAM Hamilton.

The pews were filled at Monumental Baptist Church Sunday afternoon as folks, including Jesse Jackson, gathered for a tribute to civil rights leader Samuel Billy Kyles.

Kyles, who retired in October 2014 after leading Monumental for 55 years, was unable to attend Sunday. Kyles, 81, has been in poor health since before his retirement, and has made few public appearances since then.

But he would’ve been thrilled, his wife said, that the members of the church he led since 1959 thought so highly of him that they created the Samuel Billy Kyles Witness Award, meant to honor area youth.

“He would’ve just been full of joy,” said his wife, Aurelia, who attended Sunday’s event. “This church was his heart.”

Born in Shelby, Mississippi, in 1934, Kyles and his family moved to Chicago when he was 6. He came to Memphis in 1959 to become pastor of Monumental, which had just formed. Kyles soon became active in the civil rights struggles facing the city.

In April 1968, Kyles helped bring Dr. Martin Luther King to Memphis on behalf of the striking sanitation workers. Early on the evening of April 4, Kyles was with King at the Lorraine Motel.

They were due at the Kyles home for dinner that night, and Kyles was urging King to leave the motel. As they were standing on the balcony, the fatal shot rang out, striking down King as Kyles stood just a few feet away.

Kyles was also the subject of the short film, “The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, in Memphis for Monday’s 48th anniversary of King’s assassination, spoke briefly at Monumental Sunday about his friend Kyles. He recalled his experiences with Kyles, particularly on those last few days before King was killed.

“Today, I went by the house and visited him for a little while,” Jackson said. “It was just a joy to spend an hour with him.”

For the award, the church “recognized young people who have witnessed injustice to their peers and have not remained silent.” Church officials named six teens — Jaliyah Roberts, Gerel Bowen, Kiley Kuykendall, Sharmaine Burton, Gabriel Cooper and Jaelyn Nelson — as finalists for the award. Each finalist received a certificate, tickets to the National Civil Rights Museum for them and their parents and a copy of the Kyles documentary.

The church also chose two other teens as the winners — Lynette Rockett and Cleveland Yates. The winners got the same gifts as the finalists, plus $250.

Yates couldn’t attend Sunday, but Rockett pronounced herself proud of the recognition.

“For me to get chosen, to be a part of it, it’s an honor,” the 15-year-old sophomore at Hamilton High said.

When asked how she planned to spend the $250, Rockett gave an answer that likely would’ve also made Kyles proud. Her father is a diabetic, and has problems with his feet that require regular medication.

“I’ll probably help my daddy pay for his medicine,” the teen said.