By Madison Heiser
On the evening of April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Approximately one hour later, he was pronounced dead from
a bullet wound at the age of 39. Officials say King was assassinated by James Earl Ray, but King’s family theorized other
perpetrators were involved, according to the New York Times.
Dr. Bridget Moore, TJC English professor, shared her interactions with the late Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles: a witness to the last moments of King, as well as her experiences as an African American student and professor. At the time of King’s assassination, he was preparing to leave the Lorraine Motel to meet Kyles for dinner. Kyles was a Memphis pastor, civil rights activist and friend to King.
Moore said Kyles was a quiet and unassuming man. “He was one of those who did not have to raise his voice to be heard,” Moore said. “When he opened his mouth, you naturally closed yours so that you didn’t miss a syllable of wisdom.”
Kyles was one of the only people present at the time of King’s death.
“He understood that he was present at a pivotal moment in American history,” Moore said. “He didn’t use that moment to catapult him to fame and fortune; most people do not even know who he was on a national scale.”
The people of Memphis were familiar with Kyles’ activism in civil and human rights. “He chose to lead confrontations against injustice right where he was,” Moore said. “So, while I was not on the balcony that day, I have heard the first-hand story from a man who was. Since he is no longer here, I have the pleasure and responsibility of keeping Rev. Kyles’ memory and legacy viable. Not only do I pick up that mantle, but I have a responsibility of adding to the legacy – not adding to the moment in history, but adding to the residual effects of that moment.”
King led a fight for African American civil rights in the 1960s. “I think Martin Luther King Jr. sometimes becomes synonymous with black people and/or Black History Month. When that happens, it is disrespectful to so many more people who strive(d) for human rights,” Moore said. “So many more African Americans, known and unknown, made an impact on society as a whole and more personally on our own individual lives. Their legacies deserve to be celebrated, and more importantly, respected.”
Moore described the impact that King had on her own life.
“He represented the possibility of what society could be. He taught me that it is OK to question; he showed me how to challenge the status quo – he challenges to make a difference.”
Moore also recalled her experience as an African American student and how it shapes her character as a professor.
Moore attended Texas A&M University in the 1980s; often, she was one of the only African American students in classrooms of nearly 300.
“When I teach at TJC, I see myself in the faces of my students, regardless of ethnicity or gender or creed or economic status,” Moore said. “They benefit, not only from my skills knowledge but also by literally seeing diversity in a position of authority and knowledge.”
Since 1926, February has been designated as Black History Month – a time of celebration, cultural appreciation and community involvement surrounding the achievements of African American figures in both the past and present.
Moore asserted empathy and communication as means of involvement in Black History Month.
“I think it is great to celebrate however they choose. I think it is more important to make an impact and hopefully it will be a long-lasting impact – that’s the best way to celebrate,” Moore said. “Do something that is going to leave a mark. Fill in the gap where you see one. The best way to celebrate Black History Month is to make an impact on society that will be felt longer than 28 or 29 days.”
Moore is a member of the Red Rock Historical Association, a nonprofit organization currently working to build an African American museum and activity center in East Texas. The group also sponsors the showing of “The Witness,” which provides Rev. Kyles’ account of King’s assassination. The documentary will be shown on the TJC campus from 4-6 p.m. on Feb. 18 in the Jenkins Building, Room 1109. Moore said any student, regardless of race or gender, is capable of fostering improvement and representation within the community.
“Get active,” Moore said. “Walk in someone else’s shoes.”