- Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site
International Civil Rights: Walk of Fame
Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles
Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles
1934 - present

For a half century, the Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles has pastored Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, serving as the church’s first and only pastor. Yet, the clarion call to serve has taken him far beyond the walls of Monumental.

Moving from Chicago to the segregated South in 1959, Rev. Kyles’ passion for social justice quickly surfaced and he enlisted in one of the greatest human rights struggles for justice and equality. He joined the NAACP-Memphis Branch and became a strategist for the South’s growing struggle for civil rights. In 1961, he banded with a small group of parents and enrolled his five-year old daughter in the all-white public school system. Unlike other cities that worked to desegregate high schools, Memphis became the first city in the South to integrate elementary schools.

Two years later, Rev. Kyles, along with other pioneers, fully integrated the city buses by sitting in the designated "white" section. This initial protest landed him in jail. Undaunted, his involvement as one of the lead strategists of the Memphis nonviolent movement for change continued. Slowly, he and other leaders worked to bring down the walls of segregation in restaurants, movie theaters, department stores, and workplaces in Memphis. The efforts were largely peaceful, which distinguished Memphis’ protests from other Southern cities. His bold actions catapulted him to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. He became the target of many threats, but preserved. Working in the Movement has always been “an extension of my ministry” says Rev. Kyles.

Rev. Kyles also traveled beyond Memphis to participate in rallies and freedom campaigns. On one of his trips to Mississippi to support NAACP voters’ registration drives, Medgar Evers was killed. He was one of the leaders who sought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s help in the 1968 sanitation strike. A participant in many strategy sessions and marches with sanitation workers, Rev. Kyles was on the pulpit with Dr. King the night that he gave his memorable “Mountaintop” speech. He stood beside Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, becoming an eyewitness to Dr. King’s assassination. He is committed to sharing his personal account of the last hour of Dr. King’s life and the striking workers’ struggle for dignity and equality with people around the world. He is especially passionate about sharing his experiences with young people to help them understand the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement and encourage them to be a positive influence in civic life. In 1998, he organized a group to host a "Pilgrimage to Memphis" to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. Whether in Memphis or beyond, he faithfully gives his witness to the tragedy that changed the world.

Rev. Kyles is a founding national board member of People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH) and a current national board and executive committee member of Rainbow Coalition/PUSH. Serving as Executive Director of Rainbow/PUSH-Memphis and Executive Producer of its weekly radio broadcast for more than 30 years, he led one of the most effective and active chapters of this national civil rights organization. Hundreds of people flocked to the weekly PUSH meetings on Saturdays and became inspired to enlist in the struggle. Trained in the principle of nonviolence, they took to the streets to march for justice. As a member of the national PUSH executive leadership, Rev. Kyles helped develop the strategy and push for economic parity that included signing covenant agreements with some of America’s leading corporations to hire, promote, and conduct business with African Americas. The impact of those efforts continues today.

He is a pioneer in many efforts that focus on justice, equality and improving the quality of life for those who live on the margins. He served on the Tennessee Human Rights Commission for many years and held hearings where ordinary citizens had the opportunity to tell their personal stories of discrimination and unfair practices.

On the political front, Rev. Kyles has been in the forefront of breaking down barriers for African Americans. His advice has been sought numerous times in campaigns that have resulted in the election of African Americans to positions not previously held by minorities. He was a key participant in the small citizens’ group who filed a lawsuit to eliminate the runoff in Memphis elections, a major effort that contributed to the 1991 historic election of Dr. W.W. Herenton as the city’s first African American mayor. He has seized many opportunities to get African Americans appointed to public office and boards, including helping to coordinate the historic Black Monday campaign to get the first African American superintendent of Memphis City Schools. He has been a relentless force in the movement for fair representation of African Americans to elected and appointed positions.

A constant solider on the battlefield, Rev. Kyles served on the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad during the Clinton Administration, investigating religious persecution throughout the world. In 1998, he served as a panelist at the White House Conference on Hate Crimes. He currently serves on a committee investigating alleged misconduct of ICE and violations of civil rights of immigrants in the U.S.

Supporting human rights and economic development in Africa, Rev. Kyles has traveled extensively to the motherland. He has been a delegate to the African/African American Summit and a delegate to the African National Congress’ (ANC’s) 1993 International Solidarity Conference in South Africa. One of 600 delegates, Rev. Kyles participated in the first ANC meeting on its own soil. In 1994, he served as a monitor in South Africa’s first multi-racial election.

He has received numerous awards, including the Tennessee Living Legend, 2005 Trumpet Spiritual Enlightenment and the 2009 Ford Freedom Legacy awards. His life and witness challenge us to serve and to actively participate in making our world better, not just for ourselves and our families but all of humankind, especially the "least of these."