WWU Welcomes Longtime Civil Rights Leader

The Rev. Billy KylesThe man who was with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he died is coming to William Woods University to share his memories of Dr. King and the story of his involvement in the civil rights movement.


The Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles will arrive in Fulton Feb. 8 with friend and 1986 William Woods graduate, Jennifer Beggs-Vescovo.


Beggs-Vescovo, who grew up on a farm outside of Sikeston, Mo., now resides in Memphis, Tenn. Although she was not yet alive during many of the historical events in which Kyles participated, she recognizes and respects his efforts in history, and shares his passion for social justice. Jennifer Beggs-Vescovo


Kyles and Beggs-Vescovo will talk about their unusual bond, how it formed and what they have gained from one another during a program titled “An Unlikely Friendship.” It is scheduled for 4 p.m. Feb. 8 in the Library Auditorium.


On Feb. 9, Kyles will speak at 12:45 p.m. in the Thurmond Chapel about “My Spiritual Pilgrimage.” He will tell the story of his personal spiritual journey and how it relates to his quest for peace, freedom and justice.    


According to the Rev. Travis Tamerius, WWU chaplain, many major activists in the civil rights movement were ministers, including Kyles and Dr. King. Stories from the Bible fed their imagination and fueled their commitment to social justice and freedom.


That evening, Kyles will share stories of his involvement in the civil rights movement, as well as memories of his close friend, Dr. King. His presentation, “A Story of a Movement,” will begin at 7 p.m. in Cutlip Auditorium of the McNutt Campus Center.


All events during Kyles’ visit are free and open to the community.


Adam Pertofsky’s 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306,” will be available to purchase after each of Kyles’ presentations and he will autograph the DVD’s. The documentary recounts his memory of the day King was assassinated. All proceeds will go to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.


Kyles was born in Shelby, Miss., in 1934. He moved to Memphis in 1959 and has been the pastor at Monumental Baptist Church since.  


After joining the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), he became a strategist for the civil rights struggle in the South. His bold actions, such as placing his children in an all-white school and his attempts to integrate the city buses, did not go unnoticed. Despite opposition, Kyles continued his involvement in nonviolent protests to end segregation.


He became friends with King, protesting and working side by side with him on their path to social justice. The day of King’s death, Kyles arrived at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., to take King to dinner. Kyles spent King’s final moments with him, and is the only person still living who was on the balcony when the civil rights leader was assassinated.


Kyles describes working in the center of the civil rights movement as an extension of his ministry. Today, he continues to travel extensively across the United States to spread the word and educate audiences on history from his personal point of view.


He has also traveled to Africa as a supporter of human rights and development there. While there, he was a delegate to the African National Congress (ANC) 1993 International Solidarity Conference in South Africa and served on the American Committee on Africa. In 1994, he served as a monitor in South Africa’s first multi-racial election.


Kyles currently serves on many national boards, including People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH) and Rainbow Coalition/PUSH, and worked as the executive producer of the Rainbow-PUSH WLOK Radio broadcast.  He was appointed by the Clinton Administration to serve on the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, and in 1998 he served as a panelist at the White House Conference on Hate Crimes. 
In addition, Kyles serves on the National Civil Rights Museum Board of Directors, Memphis Council for International Visitors, and National Commission on ICE Misconduct and Violations of Fourth Amendment Rights. He is also a member of the World Baptist Alliance, the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), a former instructor at the National Training Congress of PNBC, and previously served on the board of directors of the Morehouse School of Religion.


Rev. KylesKyles is a highly regarded speaker, and his audiences have included the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Labor Department, Northwestern University, Cornell University, South African Council of Churches, Society of Black Lawyers (England) and Deutschlandfunk Radio (Germany).


He has also appeared in many television documentaries, including “Who Shot Martin Luther King?,” “At the River I Stand,” “The Trial of James Earl Ray,” “The Last Days of King” (CBS), “The Century” (ABC), and Dateline’s “Tom Brokaw: Eyewitness to History” (NBC).

Posted in News Releases