Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides, Doubleday, 480 pages
Trying to secure a peaceful setting for an upcoming labor union march in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr.’s staff was in talks with a group founded on the ideals of the nascent Black Power movement. The Invaders (aka the Black Organizing Project), it was said, wanted cash in exchange for a pledge to avoid scuffles (or worse) when confronted by cops and catcallers.
To King the proposal was anathema. As Hampton Sides recounts in his new book, King furiously reminded a top aide of one of his movement’s unwavering positions: “No one will be on our payroll who accepts violence as a means of social change.”
It was the afternoon of April 4, 1968. King would be dead before the end of the day.
Hellhound on His Trail, the fifth book from Santa Fe resident Sides, has been among the year’s most anticipated nonfiction titles. It is, after all, an era-defining story as told by one of the nation’s premier young historians. And there’s a TV tie-in.
Roads to Memphis — a documentary that covers the events related in the book — will air on PBS in early May. There’s word that a feature film might follow (Universal Pictures has bought the rights to the book).
This is a book that will find you, even if you didn’t know you were looking for it; Amazon recently sent notes to regular customers reminding them that Hellhound is an in-house “Editors’ Pick for April.”
The hype, though, is a blip when compared to the actual article — a tale of tragedy and heroism rendered in heartbreaking and exhaustive detail. This is a work that honors King, his family, his like-minded peaceful warriors, and the millions who mourned his death. A truly superb book.
Sides begins his book in a Missouri state prison with a portrait of an odd recidivist, a man in his 30s who “experimented with making his skin darker by applying a walnut dye,” liked amphetamines, and practiced yoga. James Earl Ray’s ability to contort his body would work to his advantage, Sides notes: in the spring of 1967, Ray found cover in a truckload of bread baked by fellow inmates and was delivered, amid “the doughy fumes,” to freedom.
Later that same year, King began planning his Poor People’s Campaign, a project designed to draw Congress’s attention to the plight of working-class people of all colors and faiths — “people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives,” King said.
The contrasts between Sides’ two subjects are always striking. As King girds for another plunge into the teeth of resistance — in D.C. as well as Memphis, where he was called to voice the grievances of underpaid, uninsured trash collectors — Ray, under the alias Eric Galt, was visiting brothels in Mexico and Los Angeles, campaigning for segregationist presidential hopeful George Wallace and looking for an entrée into the adult-film industry.
By the early spring of 1968, both men were in Selma, Alabama, the site of the famous civil-rights march that had occurred three years earlier. Ray had recently been in Louisiana, and he hadn’t necessarily planned to end up in Alabama. But, Sides notes, on March 22, Ray “awakened in New Orleans, where the Times-Picayune reported a curious fact: Martin Luther King was scheduled to make a public appearance in Selma that very day.”
Sides artfully weaves together his twinned narratives, creating dramatic tension freighted with menace and tragic inevitability. One morning in late March, for example, King gathered with officials from his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, where he “sat at a cramped Sundayschool desk” in the Ebenezer Baptist Church. At the same time, in the neighboring state of Alabama, Ray was buying a .30-06 rifle.
In the days after killing King, Ray made his way from the Southeast to Canada, where he stayed for a while, and then on to Europe. He was a “lizardlike creature,” Sides writes, “keeping to cracks and shadows.” It took more than two months, but Ray — now going by the name Ramon Sneyd — was finally arrested in London.
Sides doesn’t deify the book’s hero. King, he notes, wasn’t a faithful husband, and his methods were openly questioned by those in the civil-rights movement who favored a more confrontational approach. But as a portrait of an era, of a country torn open by a single violent act, Sides’ book is an invaluable document.
For Sides, this is also a personal story. As he writes in his book’s introduction, he was a 6-year-old boy living in Memphis when King was murdered in his hometown. The assassination will always be part of the city’s identity. “The killer,” Sides writes, “left his fingerprints, both literal and figurative, over everything.”