After his visit to Maplewood Richmond Heights High School on Thursday, civil rights leader Rev. Billy Kyles said he liked what he saw in the district.
“You cannot come to this school and interact with people and walk through it, without feeling a real sense of togetherness,” he said. “It’s a joy for me to be here with them.”
Kyles, 77, already knew MRH assistant principal Michael Maclin from Maclin’s trips to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. He had also heard Kyles preach in Monumental Baptist Church, where he’s been a pastor for 52 years. Maclin thought the MRH students should meet him too, and invited the minister to come to Maplewood.
Kyles spent the day in the district. In the morning he spoke to the middle school and high school students.
“He had them in the palm of his hand and the message he sent was extremely strong,” high school principal Kevin Grawer said. “It was one of those culture changing events that you hope for in a school. I think we were in a good place, but we’re in a better place now that he’s been here.”
Kyles was standing next to Martin Luther King Jr. when he was shot. On Thursday evening in the MRH auditorium, he wove a sermon through his first-person account of King’s assassination.
With tempo and volume changes, he began by talking about the students and how, with today’s technology, they will run the world. He said they’re not afraid to try new things. They’re dreamers, he said.
Kyles said King was light-hearted on the day he went out on the balcony where he was shot. He had been talking to King about musicians there.
“Martin was leaning over the balcony meeting the musicians,” Kyles said. “I turned to go down the stairs and the shot rang out. Ka-pow! I looked back. Gaping hole was in his face. Blood was everywhere. Lying there in that pool of blood."
Kyles said he had wondered why he was there at that time in history. He said God revealed to him it was because crucifixions have to have witnesses.
“So I was the witness,” he said. And he said he must be honest and share what he saw.
“I must tell you as the witness, as calmly as I can, and I’m not very calm. But I must tell you, yes you can kill the dreamer, but no, absolutely no, you cannot kill the dream! The dream is still alive! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
MRH freshman Presten Pinnell said Kyles’ telling of the shooting was shocking, but it was a great experience to meet him. Pinnell was also part of the jazz band that played a selection of '60s hits to open the evening.
“It’s an honor to meet somebody that was that close to him, and to open for him was great,” he said.
Joy Kiefer, parent of two students, said she was inspired.
“I feel very honored that we can have such a living legend come speak to us,” she said. “It gives us hope in this time of division and bickering and partisanship about things that are possible.”
“I thought it was really inspiring and really true,” said Lily Kiefer, Kiefer’s daughter. “It’s just amazing how he was there for all of it. I really loved it.”