Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.
Martin Luther King. Jr., 3 April 1968
“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, a nominee for 2008’s Best Documentary Short at the upcoming Academy Awards and premiering tonight on HBO2.
The film intercuts several versions of Billy Kyles — seated for his interview, preaching for a church service, and speaking for various news cameras, back in the day. Born in Shelby Mississippi in 1934, he was living in Chicago in 1959. Seeing the civil rights movement take hold, he decided to move back to the South, much to the dismay of his four brothers, who wondered why he would leave “the promised land” to go back to Egypt, Memphis.” As pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church, he backed and helped to publicize the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike.
The film traces the complicated series of events that followed, evoking the strong passions of the time, as well as an ongoing sense of horror, tragedy and regret over the assassination, by juxtaposing 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,” she 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.”
Kyles convinced King to come to Memphis to support the workers. “He was in the economic phase of his endeavor,” Kyles says, that is, the Poor People’s Campaign. “He knew economics was the next level, and that got him killed more than anything else.” When a first march ended in violence, instigated by paid provocateurs and joined by the police, King determined to return and stage a peaceful march in April. It was on the occasion of the second protest that King gave the “Mountaintop” speech, in which he so famously seemed to foresee his own fate. He hadn’t planned to speak at the Mason Temple that night, but when word got out that he was in town, the assembled crowd grew even more enthusiastic, and he agreed to speak. Kyles says, “He just pulled it from his heart, he didn’t have a note at all.”
Brilliant as the speech was, it is now most often remembered for its seeming prophesy of King’s death. As the film includes the closing of that oration, (“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”), it also includes the brief moment after, when King staggered just for a moment, Kyles among those helping him to his seat. “We felt something we had not felt in his speaking before,” Kyles says.
Looking back, Kyles feels he was privileged to be with Dr. King during his last hour on earth. He recalls details, who was standing where and who said what in the room at the Lorraine. “Just one shot,” he says, “knocked him back onto the floor.” As he stands again on the balcony, the film intercuts grainy black and white photos to illustrate Kyles’ description of the body: “One of his feet was kind of hanging through this railing.”
In Kyles’ story, The Witness offers hope, respect, and faith. “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.