Hell­hound on His Trail: The Stalk­ing of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the In­ter­na­tional Hunt for His As­sas­sin by Hampton Sides, Dou­ble­day, 480 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Kevin Can­field

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.”

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