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Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides

February 27, 2011

I was intrigued to see that the paperback release of this book was re-titled: Hellhound On His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt In American History. That revised title has a much pulpier feel to it, and it is significant, though I think strange, that it doesn’t even mention Martin Luther King, Jr. That said, it may be a little more accurate, because this is a piece of narrative non-fiction, and it is as much the story of the enigmatic James Earl Ray as it is of King.

Many books have been written on King’s life and legacy, and many others on whether or not there was a conspiracy behind his assassination. This book, in contrast, focuses on the assassin, his character, and how he came to be standing over a bathtub, lining King up in the sight of his sniper rifle on a balmy April evening in 1968. We find a King who is struggling to maintain progress in his crusade for civil rights. He is a flawed man—stressed, gaining weight, smoking often, caught up in an affair while his marriage crumbles. His campaign has shifted from a strict focus on race relations and he is planning a controversial march on Washington—the biggest the country has ever seen—to protest the conditions of the poor and disenfranchised of all stripes across the country. He is taking flack from the right and the left, has lost many of his political allies due to his strong criticism of America’s role in Viet Nam, and is under surveillance of Hoover’s FBI.

In February of 1968, as this is all happening, two garbage men in Memphis are crushed in the back of their truck when the machinery proves faulty. This sparks a strike by the other sanitation engineers in Memphis, who demand better wages and working conditions. King, feeling that his support could provide the exposure the workers need to succeed, attends a march by the workers. To his dismay, the march is hijacked by a radical element and ends in riots around the city. This prompts King to promise to return to Memphis and hold the kind of non-violent demonstration he espouses. Which is what brings him to that moment, standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, smoking a cigarette, when the bullet from James Earl Ray’s rifle rips through his jaw. Although death is not instant, the wounds are irreparable.

King’s assassination is the mid-point of the plot of this story. After that, the King side of the story follows his funeral, the reaction of his family and the ongoing actions of the crippled civil rights movement. Intertwined with all of this is the story of James Earl Ray, also known as Eric Gault, among a half dozen other aliases.

Ray was a career criminal who had both moments of laughable ineptitude as well as shocking brilliance. He was a racist long before King came along. He was a drifter and a loner, arrested for armed robbery and mail fraud. In 1967, he managed to escape in a bread truck from the Missouri State Penitentiary, then drifted across the country until he finally settled for a short time in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. He frequented a brothel there and tried his hand as a porn director, but eventually grew frustrated and headed north to Los Angeles. It was there that he came into contact with George Wallace’s presidential campaign, a chance meeting that would prove as a catalyst for Ray, playing off his racism with his general lack of purpose. The result was a half-baked personal mission to assassinate King, one that would benefit from a surprising lack of security surrounding King and some plain dumb luck on the part of Ray.

Sides’ account of the aftermath of the assassination, from Ray fleeing the scene to his escape to Canada, Spain, and the U.K. with hopes of making it to Rhodesia, reads like a great spy novel. The pace is frenetic and tense as Ray tries to evade the greatest dragnet of all time. He is, of course, eventually captured, tried and convicted. As a final story, but one that literally left my mouth hanging open, Ray manages to briefly escape from prison once again nine years later.

There are two things that struck me about this book. The first is that with all of Sides’ in-depth research and all the details we know about Ray’s whereabouts and personal life, we still don’t have a good understanding of what truly motivated him. Perhaps it was simple racism. Or perhaps, like Lee Harvey Oswald and Ted Kaczynski, he was just another in a frightening line of American-made terrorists—loners who lack a compass but possess just enough intelligence and just enough ambition to shock the world and change history forever.  And then there is the environment that provides these killers with the motivation and the means. This is the second thing that struck me. The curious mix of racism, fear, anti-government sentiment and access to weapons that imbued the political environment in 1968 is not unlike that we see surrounding today’s Tea Party. To be clear, it’s my observation, not Sides’. And it will no doubt be construed as a politicized statement. But while George Wallace can’t be blamed for the assassination of Martin Luther King, he is not without blame. James Earl Ray was off-kilter and fringe to be sure, but the inflammatory rhetoric, the bigotry and the availability of firepower—these were the elements that allowed the circumstances to conspire. These are the elements that can incite a man like James Earl Ray, or Jared Lee Loughner, or anyone else with a screw loose and a burr under their saddle and a rifle in their closet. And what is most frightening is that those elements remain as much a part of our culture today as they did in 1968.

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