Thursday, August 26, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King and the International Hunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides

480 pp.

My many thanks to Doubleday, who sent me this book as an ARC some time ago. And my apologies for just getting around to reading it.

On April 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down & killed with a single shot as he stood outside of his room on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  It didn't take long until the conspiracy theories began. As the author notes:
In a society already well marinated in conspiracy, it was only natural that every form of collusion would be bruited about.... Johnson had done it. Hoover had done it. Wallace had done it. The Klan, the White Citizens Council, the Memphis Police Department. The Mafia, the CIA, The National Security Agency, the generals who ran the war King had condemned. 
But Hampton Sides believes it was only one man, James Earl Ray, who committed this murder.  From the beginning, he traces the movements of this man (although he calls him Eric Stavro Galt rather than James Earl Ray, going by Ray's alias at the time) starting in 1967 in Puerto Vallarta where he'd hoped to make his mark in the porn industry. Before that time, Ray had been in prison, where he'd escaped in a bread truck some time before arriving in Mexico.

In the first part of the book, Sides puts this year into perspective both politically and socially.  LBJ's in the White House; faced with the Vietnam quagmire and growing social unrest at home, he has decided not to run for another term. He has been criticized by Martin Luther King for funneling money out of the country to finance the war rather than to help the poor in America.  J. Edgar Hoover is still FBI director, caught in a time warp chasing communists in America and expending an enormous amount of effort making Martin Luther King an FBI/Cointelpro target. Younger, urban African-Americans no longer believe that King's policies of nonviolence are effective in their fight against oppression, while King and his associates are  planning a "Poor People's Campaign" to take place in Washington DC.  George Wallace is starting his campaign for the presidency.  It's a turbulent time in American history and Sides captures it well.  He also traces the events that led Dr. King to the Lorraine Hotel, and simultaneously examines how Galt/Ray came to be there at the same time.

The second part of the book focuses on not only law enforcement efforts to find King's murderer, but Galt's efforts to elude capture.  Unlike today, there was no automated fingerprint identification system, nor was there DNA analysis to make the task any easier. FBI agents definitely had their work cut out for themselves. And while they're busy trying to sift through leads, Galt flees the country, making his way northward into Canada and then on to Europe via London and Portugal and back to London again.

The book raises many questions, the most notable being the motivation behind Galt/Ray's actions.  Sides believes that perhaps one reason behind his crime was that Ray wanted to accomplish something truly notable in his life, although we're never really privy to Ray's thoughts about why the death of  Martin Luther King would accomplish that goal. Did he do it for money? And speaking of money, until Ray got to Portugal, he seemed to be flush enough to take care of himself during that year; was someone paying him? How did he manage to always come up with needed funds when he left prison with very little cash?

Hellhound on His Trail may be a bit misnamed -- I never did get the sense that Ray was actually stalking King -- but it's a very readable and credible account of  what led up to a day that made a difference to America on several levels. It's also one I'd definitely recommend.

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