No matter how much — or how little — you already know about James Earl Ray's assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., you will be spellbound by Hampton Sides' superb new book, Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin.
Sides focuses on storytelling, fashioning a narrative that, like a nonfiction Day of the Jackal, is made no less fascinating or suspenseful by the fact that we know the outcome of events.
Some criticism has been leveled at Sides, in fact, for his novelistic approach — telling us, for instance, what he deduces a character must have been thinking at the time. However, he certainly seems to have done an incredible amount of research from primary sources. If pure scholarship might suffer a bit, the reader does not, racing through the pages as quickly as any popular summer read.
And what a story and cast of characters it is. Featured are such iconic figures as King himself, LBJ, and J. Edgar Hoover, along with a supporting cast of Jesse Jackson, Ramsey Clark, Joseph Lowery and Andrew Young. Then there is the looming, mysterious fugitive gunman lurking in the background, drifting under different names and guises, but inexorably making his way toward that fateful meeting in Memphis.
Sides opens his story with prisoner 416-J, a convicted armed robber, escaping from the Missouri State Prison. Periodically, we return to the implacable drifter as he hides out among bordellos in Mexico, joins a cult in California, and eventually returns to the South and finally decides on a sinister direction for his life.
In the meantime, Martin Luther King Jr. himself was searching for direction and trying to get back on track. After the historic victories of the civil rights movement, King was being overshadowed by black power advocates. With the fight against legal segregation all but won, King was beginning what he called "the Poor People's Campaign."
Sides's portrait of a tired, fatalistic King near the end of his rope and transitioning from the fight for racial equality to a fight for economic equality -– aka democratic socialism -– will surprise some conservatives who forget where King was heading at the time of his assassination.
And while this is no personal expose, Sides is frank and matter-of-fact about King's well-known failings in his personal life. While this story is well-known, it's still a little disconcerting to see how his inner circle of "reverends" (all supposedly friends with wife Coretta) did far more than turn a blind eye to King's infidelities; they actually were his active collaborators. In fact, the mistress who stayed at the Memphis hotel with King the night before he was shot was so comfortable in their company that she instinctively got into the ambulance with King as he was about to be rushed to the hospital.
One thing for sure, this won't be Jesse Jackson's favorite book on the assassination. Sides pulls no punches on how Jackson, with callous aforethought, literally "waved the bloody shirt" to get attention and claim a prominent role in events that he didn't deserve.
But Jackson wasn't the only one who spent more time making political hay than mourning a friend. The funeral was an event that made the Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone memorial of a few years ago look like a small gathering of grieving close friends, and a smaller moment provided by Andrew Young summed it up in telling fashion.
When FBI agent Cartha "Deke" DeLoach came to King's inner circle to assure them that every possible resource was being harnessed to find the killer, Young was all but disinterested. "We aren't so much concerned with who killed Martin as with what killed him," he told a surprised DeLoach.
The largest manhunt in the history of American law enforcement came to be directed by Ramsey Clark, a left-wing Attorney General whose liberal president was suspicious of him and whose loathing of FBI Director Hoover was returned in spades. They were hunting a killer whose target had been somewhat of a nemesis for Hoover, and the victims' closest colleagues and witnesses to the event were all but hoping it would be exposed that the FBI somehow had been involved. You can't make this stuff up, and Sides takes full advantage of the drama.
As for the assassin, James Earl Ray remains still enigmatic after all these years. Sides delivers a chilling portrait of a sociopathic criminal drifter looking for meaning in his life. but the essence of Ray remains impenetrable. In his flight from justice, Ray first hid the most sought-after car in the U.S. in plain sight in Atlanta, not far off the King funeral procession route. He then fled to Canada and London, all the while harboring the illusion he would make a good mercenary in Rhodesia.
Ironically, a liberal prohibition against the British press' publishing pictures of mere "suspects" helped Ray avoid capture for quite a while in London — until a dogged effort of sheer man hours and old-fashioned police work of pawing through passport records finally uncovered the lead that led to Ray's arrest.
While debunking conspiracy theories is not the purpose of the book, they make little sense when one reads Hamton's detailed narrative. If Ray had outside help or a plan for escape, the author concludes, there's no way he would have done it this way.
Hellhound on His Trail is great reporting and great writing. This is no surprise from the author of Ghost Soldiers (the basis for the movie The Great Raid) andBlood and Thunder, which ingeniously personalized the story of westward expansion by telling it through the eyes of Kit Carson. Whatever quibbles historians may have with Hampton's methodology, this is a gripping and essential accounting of one of the 20th Century's signature events.