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‘Hellhound on His Trail’ by Hampton Sides

A bestselling author reconstructs an assassin’s life and the events leading up to the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

April 25, 2010|By Art Winslow, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Hellhound on His Trail

The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin

Hampton Sides

Doubleday: 480 pp., $28.95

Told that his activities were "unwise and untimely," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. responded, in his famous 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail," that while he was committed to nonviolence, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." Five years later, he was in Memphis, Tenn., for similar reasons — to demonstrate in support of 1,300 city sanitation workers who were on strike — when he was gunned down on a motel balcony, waiting to go to dinner. He was in high spirits, for his associates from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had that very day won a court battle allowing King to lead a march in the city.

James Earl Ray, the dodgy career criminal and escaped convict who murdered King and helped turn 1968 into the sad, tumultuous year that it was, is the man with the gun in Hampton Sides' "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." And yet there are hellhounds aplenty in Sides' book, notable among them George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover and J.B. Stoner, chair of the National States' Rights Party and publisher of hate literature, who contended that Ray "should be given the Congressional Medal of Honor." (Stoner eventually became one in Ray's long line of attorneys and was the first of them to suggest that "agents of the federal government," not Ray, killed King.)

Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, was running a segregationist-minded, third-party campaign for president and found a supporter and volunteer in Ray (Wallace referred to civil-rights legislation as "an assassin's knife stuck in the back of liberty," a view he disowned years later). Hoover, director of the FBI, had nursed a vendetta against King for a decade, called the civil-rights leader "Burrhead" and other names and fretted privately to President Lyndon Johnson that it was "clear [King] is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation."

Sides has managed to frame a grim cutout of the 1960s within a few weeks of springtime 1968 by following the paths of King and Ray in a deadly pas de deux. We are reminded of the other momentous political events fitting within this tight time frame: LBJ's game-changing announcement that he would not run for reelection (March 31) occurred a handful of days before King was assassinated (April 4), and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot on the presidential campaign trail (June 5) as authorities were closing in on Ray. After nine weeks on the run, King's murderer was seized in London on the day of RFK's funeral service in New York (June 8).

One challenge for Sides is that King's trajectory is among the most well-charted of any modern political figure (David Garrow's "Bearing the Cross" and the third volume of Taylor Branch's King biography, "At Canaan's Edge," for the last years, are good examples), and an exacting look at Ray's criminal past, the assassination, his guilty plea, imprisonment and the evidence can be found in Gerald Posner's "Killing the Dream," published a dozen years ago. As Sides' source notes make clear, he has surveyed the enormous range of available literature (including memoirs of on-the-scene principals such as Andrew Young, an SCLC staffer in 1968, and Ralph Abernathy, the longtime trusted colleague who succeeded King as head of the leadership conference), examined FBI files, oral histories and other archival documentation, and expended the journalistic shoe leather to go back and reinterview multiple witnesses and participants in the hunt for the killer (including then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark).

The result is a taut, vibrant account that shows the synchronicity of movements as King and his colleagues plot political strategy and follow his speaking itinerary, while Ray draws ever closer in what would seem an erratic path if we didn't know, as in myth, that a tragedy foreordained lay on the road ahead.

Sides' writing is trenchant on King's political aims and concerns, stuffed with sharp first-person quotations, chilling in detail and particularly haunting in evoking the confusion and pathos in the minutes following the single crack of Ray's rifle. Half of "Hellhound on His Trail" builds up to the murder, the remaining half follows law-enforcement attempts to identify and track down the unknown assailant, and the efforts by King's bereft circle to carry on his work in earnest.

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