The next day, King was in a good mood, almost giddy, Kyles remembered. Kyles was hosting a dinner for King at his home that evening. “I told him it was at 5 because he was never in a hurry.” But when Kyles knocked on King’s door, at Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, to hurry him along, King let him know he had uncovered the little ruse: He had found out the dinner was actually at 6. So they had some time, and King invited Kyles to sit down. Abernathy was there, too. King liked to eat and was anticipating a lavish soul-food feast, so he couldn’t resist razzing Kyles. “I bet your wife can’t cook,” King told his friend. “She’s too pretty.”
Just to tease a little more, King asked Kyles: Didn’t you just buy a new house? He then told the story of an Atlanta preacher who had purchased a big, fancy home and had King and Coretta over for dinner. “The Kool-Aid was hot, the ham was cold, the biscuits were hard,” Kyles recalled King jiving. “If I go to your house and you don’t have a decent dinner, I’m going to tell the networks that the Rev. Billy Kyles had a new house but couldn’t afford to have a decent dinner.”
It was about 5:45 when King and Kyles left the room and stepped onto the second-floor balcony. Abernathy stayed put. King leaned over the rail to gaze at a busy scene in the parking lot eight feet below, exchanging words with his young aide Jesse Jackson, among others. Kyles was just about to descend the steps, with King behind him, when he heard the shot. “And when I looked around, he had been knocked from the railing of the balcony back to the door,” Kyles recalled. “I saw a gaping hole on the right side of his face.”
Kyles ran back into the room and tried to call for an ambulance, but no one at the motel switchboard answered. He took a bedspread and draped it over King’s body.
King was pronounced dead at 7 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
“Forty years ago, I had no words to express my feelings; I had stepped away from myself,” recalled Kyles, now 73, the pastor at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. “Forty years later, I still have no words to describe my feelings.”
For years, Kyles struggled with an internal question: “Why was I there?” And at some point, he can’t remember when, “God revealed to me, I was there to be a witness. Crucifixions have to have a witness.”