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A Shot Rings Out in the Memphis Sky
Irene and I are mesmerized by the Reverend's words. Here was a man who created the history we were researching. He had come to Memphis to be a part of the civil rights movement. He was arrested for sitting in the front of the bus. His oldest daughter helped integrate the Memphis public schools. And he was with Dr. King during the last hour of his life. He has an incredible story to tell.
It was 100 years after slavery had ended, but underpaid black laborers were still the foundation of the Southern economy. Garbage workers labored for long hours with no overtime pay or sick leave. Their wages were so low that a full-time employee could still qualify for welfare. There were white workers in sanitation, but they drove the trucks and were treated much, much better than the black workers who picked up the trash.
"They didn't need someone from New York or Washington to tell them, 'You are working in a bad environment.' They knew it. So they went on strike."
"It was as much about salary as it was dignity." Reverend Kyles explains the power of the sign carried by the strikers. "That sign didn't say freedom, it didn't say justice, it didn't say equality. It said, 'I am a Man,' because they were treated less than that.
"The community came to their support. We were raising money, collecting food, collecting clothes. And we had big rallies. And so we got Dr. King to come to a rally."
Dr. King "…was so hurt and so depressed that that march broke up in violence. We know now that it was paid to be broken up." Reverend Kyles suspects the FBI was involved. "[FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover had declared that Martin Luther King would not have another peaceful march in America."
In fact, Hoover's hatred for King was well-known and acted upon in many ways. In his book, The Last Crusade, Gerald McKnight writes about the aggressive counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) aimed at Martin Luther King. The FBI harassed him, claimed he was a Communist and attempted to destroy his reputation within the black community. They even went so far as to send him tapes that suggested he commit suicide. But Martin Luther King Jr. would prevail.
To Dr. King, the garbage workers' troubles were a good example of what he was trying to fight with the Poor People's Campaign. These were hard-working people who simply did not make enough to live. King was planning a march to Washington, "…unlike anything else. We weren't going to go make speeches in Washington and then go home. We were going to put up tents and live on the Mall." In the late 1960s, King had shifted away from classic civil rights issues to focus on social justice issues involving all of the nation's poor, of all colors. He saw the struggle for economic and civil rights as inseparable.
The speech was also eerily prophetic-as thunder and lightning crashed outside, King spoke more about death than his friends had ever heard him talk about it. The next day, all seemed back to normal. He attended a rally and returned to the Lorraine Motel to get ready for dinner.
"Dinner was going to be served at my house," Reverend Kyles explains. "I told him dinner was at five; he called my house and they said six. This gave me the awesome privilege of spending the last hour on earth with him. Three preachers in a room-Abernathy, King, Kyles. And of the three, I'm the only one left. So we talked about what preachers talk about-some very light-hearted conversations.
" We walked out on the balcony at a quarter to six, and he was greeting people he hadn't seen… It was lighthearted, very light hearted.
"'C'mon guys, let's go,' I said. He was leaning over the rail, talking to Jesse Jackson, Jesse was introducing him to the band leader… I walked away. I got about five steps when a shot rang out. I looked back…there was a tremendous hole in the left side of his face. There was blood everywhere.
"I ran in the room to pick up the phone. The phone was operator-assisted-it didn't have dials. I said, 'Answer the phone, answer the phone, answer the phone.'
"Abernathy was still in the room putting on shaving lotion when the shot was fired, so we kind of crossed each other-I went in the room as he went out. The switchboard operator had left the room-when she looked up and saw King was shot, she had a heart attack right there and she died a few days later."
"I tell you, for a very, very long time, I was so troubled to live with it, that I was standing there next to my friend and the next second he was killed so violently. Why was I there at that place at that time? And then it was almost like a revelation: I was there to be a witness."
Reverend Kyles continues to be a witness, sharing his story all around the country. He has talked to youth groups. He has taken presidents and diplomats through the National Civil Rights Museum (built at the Lorraine Motel). Nelson Mandela was moved to tears as he stood in the motel room hearing about Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
Thirty-three years after his death, why is there still so much interest in his life?
Was it his youth? Dr. King was 39 when he died. As Reverend Kyles puts it, "We were all young. It was a young people movement. I use that to encourage people to get involved in their life's work early. Gives you the opportunity to do it a long time, get involved in it, even change it later on."
Was it his dream? Organizers continued with plans for the Poor People's Campaign after King's death. Reverend Ralph Abernathy led marchers from the Lorraine Motel to Washington, DC saying, "We must prove to white America that you can kill the leader but you cannot kill the dream."
Was it the fact that he lived-and died-fighting for the rights and dignity of our nation's poor and maltreated? Most people associate him with his fight for civil rights, and actually overlook the fact that, towards the end of his life, he was struggling to change the nation's entire social fabric. Many, in fact, resented him for shifting his focus to broader issues, such as poverty and the Vietnam War.
As for the garbage strike, it ended peacefully on April 16th, with the workers receiving an increase in salary, benefits, and union recognition. Reverend Kyles notes, "It became more than a labor issue; it was a human rights issue, very much so. They led us into places we perhaps were not even conscious of going at the time."
"We changed a whole culture, and tradition and law. And we never fired a shot. We were fired upon but we never fired a shot. That's pretty powerful.
"So many young people cannot even imagine what it was like. And the upside of it is, as terrible as it was, we were able to correct it. We won every battle we went out to win."
Reverend Kyles wraps up by saying, "So I'll let you do the writing; I did the living."
Yes, there is no way for me to imagine. The Reverend's words-from the way his daughter's teachers used to smell her hair "as if she were a thing," to the death threats he has received-left me riveted, for they are so far removed from my own reality. And, yes, of course things are so much better than they were back then, thanks to the living that Reverend Kyles and so many others did. But the racial struggle still continues. And when one in three African-American children and a total of 12.1 million children are still living in poverty, it is clear that economic justice has not been achieved. Although our battles may be on a much different scale, they still exist.
So, Reverend, I will do the writing. But I plan on doing the living as well.
Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Irene - Violence, tension and struggle: A less than civil Rights Movement