Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C.
I used to tell people that I grew up in a black world. Our parents protected us from racism and segregation. But when I was seven, we went to Knoxville to see relatives. On the way, we were going to Lookout Mountain by train. My dad worked for the railroad, so we got to go on trips by train. We were in a train station, waiting. Nobody else was there, and we used the bathrooms and water fountains. And then the shift changed and the workers came. My mother could pass for white because she was Choctaw, but when one of the workers saw us, the man started scolding my mother, wagging his finger and saying, “You know better than that.”
I’d never seen anybody talk to my mother like that. My dad didn’t talk to my mother like that. That's when I started to see the injustices.
We went to Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church in Memphis, which just celebrated its 150th year. The Reverend James Lawson was our pastor. During the Civil Rights Movement, there were all of these young white people in our church. We couldn’t have Sunday school because they were staying in the basement. The Rev. Lawson would preach about the Vietnam War and conscientious objectors. He was involved like that.
That’s how I was introduced to the movement.
I was a junior in college when the black sanitation workers began their strike for fair treatment and the right to become unionized. On rainy days, black sanitation workers would report to work and then be told to go home because the weather was too bad to collect garbage. Meanwhile, white sanitation workers came in, stayed the day, and were paid. But what kicked off the strike was two black workers being killed on the job. A bad thunderstorm started during a route and the black workers asked to sit in the cab of the truck. The white driver said no, so they sat in the back of the truck. Lightening struck the truck and set off the motor in the trash receptacle. They couldn’t get out and they lost their lives. Their families were offered $250 for their lives.
The sanitation workers were willing to make sacrifices to become unionized. They stayed off from work with no benefits. Their lights were being cut off.
I worked as an organizer, building relationships with sanitation workers, marching and picketing, while my pastor preached from the pulpit saying that if he saw anyone crossing the sanitation workers’ strike line, "I’m going to call you out and preach about you the next Sunday!”
The Rev. Lawson invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come and speak to the sanitation workers and lead a march. At the time, Dr. King was working on the second march to Washington for the Poor People’s Campaign. Andrew Young and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff didn’t want Dr. King to come to Memphis; they wanted him to focus on the march. They were going through the South and were picking up Native Americans and poor whites to support the Poor People's Campaign. It was becoming a movement that wasn’t just about black people.
The first time Dr. King came to be with the sanitation workers, black people were on TV saying everyone would be staying home from work and school the day of the march, while the Mayor Henry Loeb was saying, “You better go to work.” The day before the march, it snowed, so no one could go to work. Black people were on TV saying, “God has spoken! Let the church say, ‘Amen!’” Mayor Loeb was on TV saying, “This was an act of God because God didn’t want y’all to lose your jobs.”
The first march turned violent. There was a group that was nonviolent during the day, and at night, another group was throwing Molotov cocktails. A man came to me and said, “We’ll be marshals on the outside of the march. When it starts to go down, follow suit. You’ll see.” Before the march, I went to the Rev. Lawson and said, “Something is going to go down.” I don’t know who he talked to, but he came back and said, “There’re too many people out there expected to march. If we call it off, there’ll be a riot.” So the march went forward. And soon as they turned the corner, glass started flying and police started beating people.
Back at the hotel, the Rev. Lawson introduced me to Dr. King. He said, “This is the young lady who said we needed to stop the march.” No sooner had he said that, that the news came on saying Dr. King could no longer lead nonviolent marches anymore. Dr. King promised to come back to Memphis and prove that wasn’t true.
Finally the second march happened. Dr. King came into the city early — April 3, 1968 — and he met with ministers. It was thundering and lightening. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy was asked to go to Mason Temple, Church of God in Christ, which would seat thousands of folks. They called Dr. King at the hotel to come. In between his getting there, a minister from Chicago got up and talked about how Dr. King had affected his life. He pretty much eulogized him. Then Abernathy got up and he pretty much eulogized Dr. King. When Dr. King got up there, he said, “If I had been given an choice of which century to be born in, it would be this one.” He said being born in his day allowed him, among other things, to be with the sanitation workers. He talked about the bomb threat of the plane that he came out on. He said, “I come into the city hearing about the threat on my life, but that doesn’t matter anymore because I’ve been to the mountain top, and God’s allowed me to see the Promised Land…. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land!”
You could have heard a pin drop.
As a college student organizer, I recruited students to participate in the mass marches. There was a young man named Montreal who had been hanging out with us as we strategized. We noticed the police were always following us. So one day, we strategized to walk the wrong way up a one-way street so that the police couldn’t follow us in cars. The day we did this, the police were on motorbikes which can go any way on this street. Someone said, “Somebody in here is a snitch.”
Dr. King was at the hotel and they were having a fish fry, so we decided to go to the hotel.
We pulled up into the parking lot. Dr. King was telling Ben Branch to play “Precious Lord,” his favorite song, at the rally later. Branch told Dr. King that it was cold and he might want to go back inside to get a jacket. Dr. King turned to go in to get his coat and Abernathy said he would get it. Just then, we heard a blast like a truck backfiring. It was gunshot. I saw Dr. King thrown up in the air and then back down, hitting the pavement. My friend Mary Hunter and I took off running up the stairs toward him. He was breathing but very slowly. I unbuckled his belt to help. His eyes were open. On the side of his head and neck was a pool of blood. I guess because he’d just been involved in such pleasant conversation, there was a most comfortable, relaxed expression on his face. I remember hearing the ambulances. I remember seeing Jesse Jackson and Mary Hunter.
We came off the balcony so that the ambulance workers could come up. I didn’t see anyone taking pictures. We just stood there, and they took our names and numbers. And I cussed them out. We asked, “Why are y’all questioning us? We didn’t do it. Y’all did!”
I called the Rev. Lawson. His wife answered the phone. She said, “Are you okay?” I said, “They shot Dr. King.” The Rev. Lawson got on the phone and said, “How bad is it?” I replied, “It doesn’t look good.” He asked where they took Dr. King but I didn't know. "Turn on the TV and see,” I told him.
Most of the staff went to the hospital, even in the operating room. They wanted to make sure the doctors did everything.
We were trapped in the hotel. It was about 1:30 in the morning before they would allow us to leave. The National Guard had come, and the city was on lockdown. It was a dark and stormy night. It was almost like Good Friday. Dr. King was our hero. He was our hope. Thanks be to God, he was a leader that stood up for righteousness. Those leaders were not wealthy; they were not in the forefront to get money.
I know that I was no longer the same person I had been. I didn’t care if I ever finished school. I went to Mississippi to organize people there. I did graduate from college and went to D.C. Today, there’s no kind of injustice — gay rights, immigrant rights, whatever — that I don’t feel obligated to address. We have to learn how to love one another and live together.
I think today’s Black Lives Matter movement is an effort to correct the wrong that is happening to black people around the country. They’re pretty much organized in areas where senseless deaths by police have taken place. It is not an organization that promotes rioting and tearing up the city. They’re just mobilizing to say something wrong has happened. And it’s not just black folks; there are as many white people involved. It’s people saying, “We’re tired.”
Even during the Civil Rights Movement days there were buildings burned, even as people protested. But it was not SCLC doing it. I’m not defending the rioting, but it was one way that people could express feelings. We have to say something. Sometimes, all we know is to break some glass and take some money. But by doing that, we hurt our own communities.
Deaconess Clara Ester retired in December 2006 as executive director of Dumas Wesley Community Center, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution, located in the Crichton neighborhood of Mobile, Ala.