'I May Not Get There With You': An Eyewitness Account Of MLK's Final Days | New Hampshire Public Radio

'I May Not Get There With You': An Eyewitness Account Of MLK's Final Days

Originally published on January 15, 2021 10:40 am

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.

A young Clara Jean Ester graduated from Memphis State College, now known as the University of Memphis. Now, Ester is a retired organizer and Methodist deaconess in Mobile, Ala.
Clara Jean Ester

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ahead of Martin Luther King Day weekend, we hear from Clara Jean Ester. Clara was a 19-year-old college junior when she joined the sanitation strike in Memphis. She was there when Dr. King gave his final speech in 1968. She was also at the Lorraine Motel the next day, the day Dr. King was assassinated. At StoryCorps in Mobile, Ala., she recalls the last days of Dr. King's life.

CLARA JEAN ESTER: The church was packed. And finally, Dr. King arrives. And he said, when I entered into the city of Memphis, I was told about all these threats. But none of that matters anymore because I've been to the mountaintop. And 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. I remember that night was a tornado watch and in the background of that speech, you can hear the thunder and the lightning crash. And it was a powerful moment because he did his own eulogy.

The next day, we pull up to the hotel, get out of the car and walking across the parking lot, I'm looking up as Dr. King leaning on the balcony, chatting with everybody down below. All of a sudden, what sounded like a truck backfiring goes off and I can hear people saying, get down, get down, but 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. His eyes were open and he still had a smile on his face. Kneeling over his body, all I could hear was I may not get there with you, I may not get there with you from the night before.

And when the word came that Dr. King was dead, hate kind of took over, hate that white America don't want to see us with freedom, so you take out our leader, our king. I think every time I want to believe that Dr. King's life changed everything, I've witnessed George Floyd's and so many others that have lost their lives. But you think that that's going to destroy his dream? Y'all are wrong. I think children in years and years to come will continue to have this dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WISDOM'S "PERSPECTIVES")

MARTIN: Seventy-two-year-old Clara Jean Ester, who went on to become a deaconess and community organizer - her story will be archived with the rest of the StoryCorps collection at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WISDOM'S "PERSPECTIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.