An Eyewitness Recalls the Final Days of Martin Luther King Jr’s Life

Newsy Studio

This coming Monday is not just a holiday. It is a day to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the great civil rights leader. You may think you know a lot about him already, but now, we know in more detail what his final days were like thanks to an interview of a 72-year-old woman who was in college at the time.

Clara Jean Ester sat down for an interview with StoryCorps to explain what the final days of Dr. King’s life were like from her perspective. She didn’t know that she was witnessing his final days at first, but she described the atmosphere at ominous the night before he was shot.

Ester was a junior at Memphis State College at the time. In 1968, she joined African American sanitation workers in the Memphis Sanitation Strike. The sanitation workers wanted a wage increase and improved working conditions. 

On April 3, 1968, Ester went to Bishop Charles Mason Temple to hear King’s sermon which supported the sanitation strike. She remembered the experience vividly saying, “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.’ 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.’ “

While Dr. King was delivering his sermon, Ester heard thunder and lightening outside. She later thought his sermon was a prophecy of his death, and said, “It was a powerful moment because he did his own eulogy.”

Dr. King was staying at the Lorraine Motel. The next day, April 4th, Ester went to the motel along with other civil rights supporters. As she was walking through the parking lot of the motel, she thought she heard a car backfiring, but it wasn’t a car. It was a gunshot. Ester remembers hearing everyone say “Get down!” Instead, she continued to watch Dr. King.

Ester remembered, “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.”

Dr. King’s words from the night before echoed in Ester’s ears. She remembered him 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.”

Now, at 72-years-old, Ester doesn’t think America has come as close to the Promised Land as Dr. King had hoped. That doesn’t mean Dr. King’s dream isn’t valid. Ester said, “I think children years and years to come will continue to have his dream.”