“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. Contemplating that event, as well as those that led to it and followed, Kyles appears serene, though hardly complacent. His recollections form the basis of The Witness: From The Balcony of Room 306, airing 4 October on the Documentary Channel.
The film intercuts several versions of Billy Kyles—seated for his interview, preaching for a church service, speaking for assorted news cameras, back in the day. Born in Shelby Mississippi in 1934, he was living in Chicago in 1959. It also includes interviews with Maxine Smith, then executive secretary of the NAACP’s Memphis Branch, and Dr. Benjamin Hooks, the Shelby County judge at the time: “It’s a struggle that never should have been,” Smith says, meaning that the working conditions were so deplorable no one should have been subjected to them, ever. Hooks phrases it differently: “The sanitation workers strike almost had to happen,” he says, as the documentary shows a long line of protestors on a city sidewalk, wearing iconic placards declaring, “I am a man.” The film underscores the need to keep hold of these memories today, as US citizens contend with increasing efforts to restrict basic rights—to vote, to work, to have access to education and health care.
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