Clara Jean Ester was a college student at Memphis State College in Tennessee when she bore witness to a series of pivotal moments in civil rights history.
As a junior, Ester joined the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968, alongside African American sanitation workers who were calling to demand better working conditions and higher wages.
She was there at around that same time that Dr. Martin Luther King gave his final speech. She was also there the next day when Dr. King was assassinated.
At StoryCorps in Mobile, Ala., earlier this month, Ester, now 72, remembers the last days of Dr. King’s life.
On the night of April 3, Ester remembered packing into a crowded congregation at Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, where King delivered a sermon in support of the striking sanitation workers.
“Finally Dr. King arrives, and he said, ‘When I entered into the city of Memphis, I was told about all of these threats. But none of that matters anymore ’cause I’ve been to the mountaintop,’ ” Ester said, paraphrasing his famous speech. “He proceeds in saying, ‘If I don’t get there with you, I want you to know that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.’ ”
The stormy weather added to an ominous scene, recalled Ester, who saw his final words as a prophecy of his own death.
“In the background of that speech you could hear the thunder and the lightning crashing,” she said. “It was a powerful moment because he did his own eulogy.”
The following day, Ester and a number of King supporters, gathered at the Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights leader was staying.
“Walking across the parking lot, I’m looking up at Dr. King leaning on the balcony, chatting with everybody down below,” said Ester. “All of a sudden what sounded like a truck backfiring goes off and I can hear people saying, ‘Get down, get down!’ ”
But she didn’t take her eyes off of King, she said.
“I’m looking, still, at Dr. King being thrown back and I take off and I run up the steps. And when I get up to where he’s laying, I notice this pool of blood around his head,” she said.
In that moment, kneeling over his body, Ester said King’s fateful words from the night before were echoing in her head: I may not get there with you. I may not get there with you.
After news of King’s assassination, she said hate “took over.” It stemmed, she said, from “white America [who] don’t want to see us with freedom, so you take out our leader, our king.”
“Every time I want to believe that Dr. King’s life changed everything — I’ve witnessed George Floyds and so many others that have lost their lives,” Ester said, referring to the man fatally killed by Minneapolis police last May.
Still, in contemplating what King’s legacy has meant after decades of violence against Black people, Clara said, “You think that’s gonna destroy his dream? Y’all are wrong. I think children years and years to come will continue to have his dream.”
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Abe Selby. NPR’s Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
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