Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer
As a Civil Rights crusader, the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for equality runs alongside the Week Two theme of “Government and the Search for the Common Good.” Yet his gospel of nonviolence was a dangerous one to preach.
The first Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Two is Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin by Hampton Sides.
Sides also is the author of Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West and Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission. An editor of Outside magazine, he twice has been nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing.
His newest narrative history, Hellhound on His Trail, is a fly-on-the-wall recounting of the days leading up to the assassination of King and the subsequent capture of James Earl Ray, the man who shot King. Named after the song “Hellhound on My Trail” by Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, its narrative strands weave between the race relations of Memphis, Tenn., King’s entourage, the trail of Ray and the FBI hunt that chased him down.
Sides picked up the story from an inclination, like many writers, to return to his roots. He was 6 years old the day that Ray shot King in Sides’ hometown of Memphis. King was supporting a strike by the city’s black sanitation workers that day in early April 1968, and Sides’ father, who worked at a law firm that was at the time representing King, was the first to explain the tragedy. Sides still remembers the National Guardsmen, the rioting, the fear that Memphis would be torn apart.
“It was the first time I became aware of history happening, right in front of me,” Sides said. “Because I was old enough only to understand that something big was happening, but I wasn’t old enough to understand the details.”
Years later, when he started his research, Sides still struggled to piece together the specifics. The story of Ray, who Sides refers to by his alias Eric Galt through most of Hellhound, was one steeped in conjecture and misinformation.
“Almost all of the books that have been written about the assassination have either been books advancing or debunking conspiracy theories,” Sides said. “‘He did it or he didn’t do it; here’s why.’ Arguing this point, arguing that point. All these nitty-gritty conspiracy issues. It’s definitely dull reading.”
Sides sought to set the record straight — and make it compelling.
To construct the detailed narrative of Hellhound, he traveled the assassin’s trail for years. He took advantage of a new digital archive that was set up in Memphis full of previously untouched primary documents. He read the existing biographies — King, Ray, J. Edgar Hoover — and drew heavily from FBI files and Ray’s own personal notes. But Ray did not make the job easy.
“One of his lawyers said, ‘The only time you can tell when Ray is lying is when his lips are moving,’” Sides said. “He told so many different stories, and he changed these stories so often that we just don’t really know what happened, or why.”
One of the other reasons so many in the past assumed a conspiracy was responsible for King’s death was that Ray seemed incapable of doing it. Sides held the same belief before learning the man was much more clever than the author imagined, he said. He was a career criminal who escaped prison twice, once before and once after the killing.
Yet more than just intelligence, he had aspirations. Hellhound reveals Ray as an eccentric, sociopathic character. He was a recluse who took guidance from self-help books, and he had various schemes to be a bartender or move to South America or Rhodesia. He was also an aspiring pornographer and a white supremacist who supported Gov. George Wallace.
When all these previous ideas failed to pan out, Ray was desperate for a purpose. So he turned full time to following the Civil Rights leader, who at the time was steering his crusade from racial to economic equality and working on organizing a Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C.
“I don’t think you have to be a genius to kill someone,” Sides said. “We have a long, long line of assassins who were patient enough to stalk someone, and unfortunately, he fits into that long, long line of individuals.”
King had been receiving death threats since 1955, but in his final speech a day before the assassination, referred to as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he gave an almost uncanny resignation to fate. While King had been giving versions of this speech for years, Sides said, that night, all the themes came together in a crescendo.
“Like anybody,” King said. “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”
King was a hunted man. Not only by Ray, but Hoover and the FBI were recording his conversations and blackmailing him. He had even received a bomb threat on the plane he flew into Memphis. Like Socrates, Jesus and Gandhi, who was King’s role model, his doctrine of nonviolence was too radical for some, Sides said.
“It seems to be a very dangerous profession to go against the grain of society and to advocate peaceful solutions to social ill,” Sides said. “I don’t know why it’s so dangerous to advocate peace, but it seems to be throughout our history. I think he was aware of the fact that he was a marked man, almost from the beginning of his career as a social activist and an advocate of nonviolence.”