Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not expect to live to age 40. By 1968, the American civil rights pioneer had received so many death threats that he was convinced his time was running out. On April 4 of that year, King spent an hour reminiscing with two preacher friends in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to lead a march. As King paused on a balcony to talk with a small group of supporters, a single shot rang out, dropping him where he stood. He was 39 years old. One of the men in the motel room with King that day - and the only man on the balcony with him - was the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles. Recently nominated for an Academy AwardŽ in the category of Documentary Short, The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 offers his intimate eyewitness account of the events leading up to King's assassination.
Shot on location in Memphis at several historic sites, including the Lorraine Motel, the National Civil Rights Museum and Mason Temple, The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 blends interviews and footage of Kyles and fellow former NAACP officials, then and now, with other archival footage.
King had come to Memphis at the urging of Kyles and other local civil rights activists to lead a nonviolent march in support of striking sanitation workers. When the march took a violent turn, King was forced to abandon it, but returned soon afterward for another attempt. He was killed before the second march took place.
For years afterward, Kyles wondered why he was on that balcony at such a pivotal moment in history. Later, he says, he understood: He was there to help keep alive King's legacy and his dream of equal rights for African-Americans. "Crucifixions have to have witnesses," says Kyles. "You can kill the dreamer but you cannot...kill the dream."
Says executive producer Margaret Hyde, "When most people think of Martin Luther King, they think of the 'I have a dream' speech in Washington, or the conspiracy theories surrounding his death. But few are aware of the role the Memphis sanitation workers' strike played during his final days. I thought it was important to tell that story through the words of a man who knew Dr. King so well and has devoted such a large part of his life to keeping his vision alive."
The National Civil Rights Museum presents a Rock Paper Scissors production; executive producer, Margaret Hyde; produced by Margaret Hyde; directed by Adam Pertofsky; music by Human; editor, David Brodie; production designer, Sarah Bleakley; director of photography, Steve Yedlin.