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A Shot Rings Out in the Memphis Sky
"Ph.D. degree, Nobel Peace Prize, great orator, world traveler-and he died helping garbage workers." We sit at the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, listening to the Reverend Samuel Kyles speak about the late Martin Luther King Jr.
Reverend Kyles came to Memphis to be part of the civil rights movement. He was arrested for sitting in the front of the bus. His daughter helped integrate the Memphis public schools. And he was with Dr. King during the last hour of his life.
A 1968 garbage workers' strike brought King to Memphis. Garbage workers worked 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 garbage workers, but they drove the trucks and were treated much better than the black workers who picked up the trash. The workers' union called for a walk-out. Feeling they had nothing left to lose, 1300 workers stayed away from work.
"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 only problem is that the march turned violent. It was the first time King was involved in a non-peaceful event. Students were throwing stones. The police descended upon the crowd.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King returned to Memphis to lead a peaceful demonstration. He delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech to a crowd at the Mason Temple, where he spoke of reaching the promised land." The next day, 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. We walked out on the balcony at a quarter to six. 'C'mon guys, let's go,' I said. He was leaning over the rail, talking to Jesse Jackson… I walked away. I got about five steps when a shot rang out." King was pronounced dead an hour 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.
The garbage strike ended peacefully on April 16th. The workers received 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."
"We changed a whole culture, and tradition and law. And we never fired shot. We were fired upon but we never fired a shot. That's pretty powerful."
Reverend Kyles wraps up by saying, "So I'll let you do the writing; I did the living."
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. It is clear that economic justice has not been achieved. Although our battles may be on a much different scale, they still exist.
Museum Protest - Day and Night for Over Twelve Years...
So, Reverend, I will do the writing. But I plan on doing the living as well.
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Links to Other Dispatches
Jennifer - X stands for: Fight the powers that be!
Stephanie - The night Watts was set ablaze