By Sheryl McCollum
They are often called leaders, the “old guard”, civil rights legends, the “last from the movement”, witnesses, but never are they called survivors of homicide. I had the privilege of hearing Andrew Young speak on April 3, 2010 marking the 42nd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
Andrew Young is the former Mayor of Atlanta, Former Congressman and Former Ambassador to the UN; but before all of that he was Martin’s friend. Andrew Young was with Martin in Memphis when he was shot on that balcony. He still misses his friend.
Rev. Billy Kyles was standing right next to Dr. King when that fatal shot rang out. “I wondered for many years, I don’t know how long, why was I there at that crucial moment.” The Reverend Samuel Kyles, best known as Billy, pauses. “I knew it was more than coincidence. I just didn’t know what.” Forty years later, Kyles says, he still doesn’t have the words for what he experienced on 4 April 1968. Standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, he watched as his friend and fellow preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, was shot and killed.
Dr. King said in his last speech: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land”. Rev Kyles says now that “God revealed to me why I was there,” he says. “Crucifixions have to have witnesses.” And so, he speaks today, not to describe his own feelings but to tell the story, again and again.
Andrew Young was just 36 years old. Jesse Jackson was only 27. Rev. Kyle’s was but 33. These were young men.
They were young and they were friends. Dr. King said that Ralph Abernathy was the best friend he had in this world. They did everything together. They marched; they shared motel rooms, jail cells and family time together with their wives and children. Abernathy went to jail for Dr. King and the movement 44 times. How many of us have a friend that believes in us enough to go to jail with us or for us 44 times? Dr. King died in Abernathy’s arms.
These men were not simply eye witnesses to a murder – they are survivors of homicide. As victims of crime go these men are among the most famous. Because of their fame and notoriety they often are ask to talk about what happened on that fateful day. They are rarely afforded the right not to speak about it. Never have I ever heard anyone say can you? Are you able? Instead questions start flying about the events of April 4, 1968.
They will be asked to tell they stories again and again like Rev. Kyle’s said and they will speak about the events not their feelings or trauma but please remember the next time you heard from one of these men they are not just talking about the famous civil rights leader but they are talking about their friend.
Sheryl McCollum, MS
Cold Case Investigative Research Institute