On the Balcony with Dr. King

The Rev. Samuel Billy KylesThe sanitation workers had gone on strike in Memphis in February 1968. They were treated so poorly and their wages were so low that they could work all day and still qualify for welfare. So they went on strike. We tried to get them to wait until June. Then you would have the heat and the stench and the flies, but they said, "No, we can’t go back. We’re out. We’re not going back." That started the movement for equality for the sanitation workers.

We started having rallies every night, and we started raising money. Then we started making plans for a big rally, and we invited Dr. King to come. The first time we asked him, his staff said, "We don’t have time. We’re working on the Poor People’s Campaign. We can’t come to Memphis." But he overruled them and said, "No, we’re going to Memphis," and he came and made a wonderful speech. We got him to agree to come back and lead a march. That march broke up in violence, so he wanted to come back and have a peaceful march. He said, "If we don’t have a peaceful march in Memphis, we can’t have one in Washington."
So he came back to lead that march on April 3, 1968. We almost missed the mountaintop speech. There were tornado warnings that night, thunder and lightening and rain. He thought there would not be many people at the temple. So he told Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy and myself to go over and have the meeting without him. He would stay in his hotel room and work on the Poor People’s Campaign.

Well, we got there and the place was nearly full. Abernathy walked in, Jesse Jackson walked in, and then I walked in, and the people started clapping. Abernathy’s preacher’s sense said, "These people are not clapping for us. They think Martin is coming in behind us." So he went to the phone and said, "Martin, you better get over here, man. These people came out in the weather to hear you." So, he came. We almost missed that mountaintop speech.

Ralph Abernathy introduced him for fully 20 minutes. We didn’t know that would be the last introduction he would ever receive. We knew how to get the introducer out of the way when he’s too long, we say, "Amen, brother. Amen, brother." But no one said a word. Martin sort of teased Ralph when he got up. He said, "I thought Ralph wasn’t going to make a speech."

I’d never heard him talk about death so much as he did that night. He didn’t take a topic. He just got up and started talking. He told us how his plane had been under guard all the previous night in Atlanta, and that when he got into Memphis, he had heard about more threats against his life.

Then he started to talk about the time he was stabbed in New York. A woman came up to him as he was signing books, and said, "Are you Martin Luther King?" He said, "Yes," and she stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener.

When he was recovering, he said of all the greetings he got, the one most telling came from a young girl in New York somewhere. She wrote, "Dear Dr. King, I read about your misfortune, and I’m so sorry to hear about that. The papers said the blade was so close to your aorta that if you had sneezed you would have drowned in your own blood." She put at the bottom, "I’m glad you didn’t sneeze.

"He picked up on that and did a whole litany on—I’m glad I didn’t sneeze. If I had sneezed, I would have missed the young people "sitting in" all across the south. If I had sneezed, I would have missed the Selma to Montgomery march. If I had sneezed, I would have missed the voting rights. He talked about all the things he would have missed had he sneezed.

Martin then said, "You will get to the Promised Land. We as a people will get to the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but God has allowed me to go on the mountain. I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. You’ll get to the Promised Land."

I’m certain he knew he wouldn’t get there, but he knew we couldn’t stand to hear him say, "I won’t get there with you." So he softened it and said, "I may not get there with you."

He never thought he’d live to be 40. He was 39 when the bullet hit him. He said, "I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land, and I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the coming of the Good Lord," and he turned and walked to his seat. He always finished his quotes, but he didn’t finish his quote that night. And by the next day he was right, he didn’t live to be 40.

Dinner was to be served at my home. I told him dinner was at 5:00. He called my house, and someone told him dinner was at 6:00. So, when I got to the motel to pick him up, he said, "I’m in no hurry. Dinner’s not till 6:00."

That gave me the wonderful privilege, along with Ralph Abernathy, of spending the last hour of his life with him in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel—Abernathy, King and Kyles. And now I’m the only one left.

We talked about things that preachers talk about. About a quarter of 6:00 we walked out onto the balcony. He was greeting people he had not seen. Somebody said, "It’s going to be cold Doc, get your coat."

He didn’t go back in the room. He went to the door and said, "Ralph, get my coat." Ralph was in the room putting on shaving lotion. Ralph said, "I’ll get your coat." He went back to the railing of the balcony and was greeting people again. He said something to Jesse Jackson and said something to some other people. We stood together. I said, "Come on, guys. Let’s go."

I got about five steps, and the shot rang out. I looked over. People were ducking behind cars. I looked back and saw that the bullet had knocked him from beside the railing down onto the balcony.

I ran to him, and I looked at him. He had this tremendous hole in his face. Then I ran into the room and picked up the phone to call an operator or to call an ambulance. But, the operator had left the switchboard.

There was nobody on the switchboard. I was saying, "Answer the phone, answer the phone, answer the phone." And there was nobody on the switchboard. So the phone was not answered. (I learned later that the operator had gone out into the courtyard to watch Dr. King. When she saw what happened, she had a heart attack. She was the motel owner’s wife, and she died subsequently.)

The police were coming with their guns drawn, and I hollered to the police, "Call an ambulance on your police radio. Dr. King has been shot." They said, "Where did the shot come from?" The well-known picture of the people pointing is in response to that question. It was a terrible time. I thought I was having a nightmare.

While waiting for the ambulance to come, I took a spread from one of the beds and covered him from his neck down. I took a crushed cigarette from his hand. He never smoked publicly, he didn’t want the children to see him smoke. I took the cigarette pack from his pocket.

I cannot tell you the feelings I had seeing my friend there on that balcony bleeding to death. Finally the ambulance came and took him away.

For many, many years, I must tell you, I wondered why was I there? Of all the places I could have been, of all the places he could have been, all the things we could have been involved in, why was I there at that moment in history?

And God revealed it to me over the years—I was there to be a witness, and my witness has to be true. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t die in some foolish, untoward way. He didn’t overdose. He wasn’t shot by a jealous lover. He died helping garbage workers. …

The interest in this 20th century prophet’s life … is quite remarkable and unbelievable.

The fruits of his labor are with us now. A man with a Ph.D. degree—of all the things he could have been, he chose to use his gifts and his talents "for the least of these."

And so we see the results of his fruit. Yes, we will slay the dreamer and see what happens to his dream. The dream is alive. MIFA (Memphis Inter-Faith Association) is alive. Calvary is alive. The Berlin Wall is down. South Africa is free.

All of these are the fruits of his labor. Aren’t you glad God gives us another chance?

For the life and times of our servant, Martin, we’re grateful. For those who carry on his work and his dream, we’re grateful. For… all those who join in bearing the fruit that mankind needs, we’re grateful.

This season of preparation as we remember your death and your suffering, but most of all your glorious resurrection, keep us always in your love. Always give us another chance.


Copyright ©2000 The Rev. Dr. Billy Kyles. Excerpted from a sermon preached at the Calvary Episcopal Church Lenten Preaching series on April 3, 2000.