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

Written by Hampton SidesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Hampton Sides



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On Sale: April 27, 2010
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Synopsis

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
Edgar Award Nominee
One of the Best Books of the Year: O, The Oprah Magazine, Time, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, San Francisco Chronicle


From the acclaimed bestselling author of Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder, a taut, intense narrative about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the largest manhunt in American history.


On April 23, 1967, Prisoner #416J, an inmate at the notorious Missouri State Penitentiary, escaped in a breadbox. Fashioning himself Eric Galt, this nondescript thief and con man—whose real name was James Earl Ray—drifted through the South, into Mexico, and then Los Angeles, where he was galvanized by George Wallace’s racist presidential campaign.

On February 1, 1968, two Memphis garbage men were crushed to death in their hydraulic truck, provoking the exclusively African American workforce to go on strike. Hoping to resuscitate his faltering crusade, King joined the sanitation workers’ cause, but their march down Beale Street, the historic avenue of the blues, turned violent. Humiliated, King fatefully vowed to return to Memphis in April.

With relentless storytelling drive, Sides follows Galt and King as they crisscross the country, one stalking the other, until the crushing moment at the Lorraine Motel when the drifter catches up with his prey. Against the backdrop of the resulting nationwide riots and the pathos of King’s funeral, Sides gives us a riveting cross-cut narrative of the assassin’s flight and the sixty-five-day search that led investigators to Canada, Portugal, and England—a massive manhunt ironically led by Hoover’s FBI.

Magnificent in scope, drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished material, this nonfiction thriller illuminates one of the darkest hours in American life—an example of how history is so often a matter of the petty bringing down the great.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

City of White Gold

In early May 1967, three hundred miles downstream from St. Louis, the citizens of Memphis stood along the cobblestoned banks, enjoying the musky coolness of the river. Seventy-five thousand people, dressed to be seen, waited in the twilight. They’d come from all the secret krewes —from the Mystic Society of the Memphi, from Osiris and RaMet and Sphinx. They’d come from all the clubs—Chickasaw, University, Colonial, Hunt and Polo, the Memphis Country Club—and from the garden societies. The good families, the old families, in their finest James Davis clothes, bourbon flasks in hand, assembled for the start of the South’s Greatest Party.

The brown Mississippi, wide with northern snowmelt, was a confusion of crosscurrents and boils. In the main channel, whole trees could be seen shooting downstream. A mile across the river lay the floodplain of Arkansas, a world of chiggers and alligator gars and water moccasins that lived in swampy oxbow lakes. On the long sandbars, feral pigs ran among graveyards of driftwood and rotten cypress stumps.

But in the clearings beyond these wild margins were hundreds and hundreds of miles of cotton fields. Cotton as far as the eye could see, row after perfect row. Gossypium hirsutum. White gold, mined from the world’s richest alluvium.

Memphis was built on the spot where the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, in 1541, became the first European to lay eyes on the Mississippi River. The city was founded 278 years later by Andrew Jackson and a group of his investor cronies, and named for the ancient Egyptian capital near the Giza pyramids. Memphis didn’t really take off, however, until the dense hardwood forests along the river began to be cleared in the mid-nineteenth century, finally making farmable the flat, rich floodplain known as the Mississippi Delta. As the country slid toward Civil War, Memphis became the capital of a region that was constructing a last frenzied iteration of Southern planter society. If the Delta came late to cotton, it came to it with a vengeance, and with all the defiant desperation of someone following a wounded creed.

Cotton had grown along the Nile near the original Memphis, and cotton was what modern Memphis had come to celebrate on this fine humid evening of May 10, 1967. In the fields of Arkansas, and down in nearby Mississippi, the little darlings had already begun to push through the dirt, the crop dusters were preparing to rain down their chemicals, and the old true cycle was in the offing. Now it was time for Memphians to pay homage and to bless another season in cotton’s splendid realm.

The thirty-third annual Cotton Carnival, Memphis’s answer to Mardi Gras, was about to begin. Later in the week, there would be luncheons, trade shows, and charity balls. A beauty contest would declare the fairest Maid of Cotton. Many thousands would visit the giant midway and attend parades with elaborate floats, some of them spun from cotton, depicting the gone-but-not-forgotten Old South and the treachery of the long-snouted boll weevil. All week there would be parties on the rooftop of the Peabody Hotel, where mallard ducks lived in a scaled-down mansion when they weren’t marching down a red carpet to splash around in the lobby fountain.

Tonight was the high pageant that kicked off the whole week—the majestic arrival of the King and Queen, sitting upon their thrones with their sequined court all around them, on a great glittery barge that was scheduled to nudge into the Memphis harbor shortly after sunset. It was a celebration not only of cotton but also of the peculiarly settled life that thrived on it—the life of dove hunts and pig roasts and debutante balls, the genteel agrarian world that could still be found in the fertile realms surrounding Memphis.

Cotton, cotton everywhere. Crane operators, hoisting dozens of five- hundred-pound cotton bales, had constructed colossal arches that spanned the downtown streets. All attendees were urged to wear cotton, and they did: party girls in crinoline dresses, dandies in seersucker suits, children in starched oxford cloth. People even ate cotton candy while they waited with the crowds for the Royal Barge to arrive.

Representatives from all echelons of the Delta cotton world had joined the masses on the river—the factors, the classers, the ginners, the brokers, the seed sellers, the plantation owners, the compress owners,

the board members of the Cotton Exchange, the loan officers from the Union Planters Bank, the chemical engineers who’d learned how to tease out the plant’s oils and secret compounds for every industrial purpose Mammon could devise.

Cotton’s presence, and cotton’s past, could be felt everywhere along the shadowed waterfront. Behind the cheering crowds, high on the magnolia-lined bluff once occupied by Chickasaw Indians, sat Confederate Park, with its bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, who’d made his home in Memphis after the Civil War. A block from the park was the place on Adams Avenue where Nathan Bedford Forrest once operated a giant slave market, said to be the South’s largest, that boasted “the best selected assortment of field hands, house servants, and mechanics . . . with fresh supplies of likely Young Negroes.”

Running lengthwise along the same bluff lay Front Street, cotton’s main drag. In the upstairs classing rooms, sharp-eyed savants still graded cotton samples by pure intuition under north-facing skylights— judging according to quaint industry distinctions like “strict low middling” or “strict good ordinary.” Memphis remained one of the largest cotton markets in the world, with massive fortunes made and lost and made again. Many of the names were legends—Dunavant, Cook, Turley, Hohenberg, Allenberg—high rollers in a vaguely druidic enterprise. In October, during harvest time, the skies above Front Street still swirled with snows of lint.

Cotton cotton cotton. Memphis couldn’t get enough of it. Cotton was still king. It would always be king.

n

In truth, though no one wanted to talk about it on that roistering night in 1967, the old world of Delta cotton was in serious trouble. Life on the plantations had changed so fast it was hardly recognizable. Soybeans had made inroads as the new mono-crop of choice. Polyester had encroached upon the American wardrobe. Massive mechanized cotton pickers, along with new soups of pesticides and herbicides, had rendered largely obsolete the life of the Delta sharecropper. Thus demoted by petrochemicals and machines, many thousands of black field hands and their families steadily left the plantations over the decades and came to Memphis—the nearest city, and the only American city of any size named after an African capital.

Other than mule skinning or chopping cotton, though, most Delta field hands had little in the way of marketable skills when they came to the city. Some found success playing the blues on Beale Street—the central thoroughfare of black Memphis. But most settled into low-end jobs that merely recapitulated the racial and socioeconomic hierarchy they’d known on the plantations. Many became maids, janitors, waiters, yardmen, cooks, stevedores. Some had no choice but to take the lowest- end job of all: they reported to the Public Works Department and became garbagemen.

At least they’d come to a city with a history that was rich and gothic and weird. Memphis, this city of 600,000 people wedged in the southwestern crotch of Tennessee, had always had a touch of madness but also a prodigious and sometimes profane sense of humor. It was a town known for its outlandish characters and half-demented geniuses: wrestlers, riverboat captains, inventors, gamblers, snake-oil salesmen, musicians high on some peculiar native vibe that could be felt but whose existence could not be proved. For 150 years, all the pain and pathos of the river seemed to wash up on the cobblestoned banks. In 1878, the city was nearly completely destroyed by a yellow fever epidemic, but the Metropolis of the American Nile had recovered, madder and stranger and more full of brawling ambition than ever. Memphis, as one writer famously put it, “was built on a bluff and run on the same principle.”

It was a city that, since its very inception, had been perched on the racial fault line. The first mayor, Marcus Brutus Winchester, created a major scandal by falling for, and eventually marrying, a “woman of color.” One of the area’s most fascinating citizens in the late 1820s, a Scottish-born utopian named Fanny Wright, created an experimental commune of slaves whom she sought to educate and bring into full citizenship. Several generations later, Memphis gave the world Ida B. Wells, an early titan of the civil rights movement, a woman of profound courage who, in the 1890s, repeatedly risked assassination with eloquent protests against lynching. Then there was the ever- cryptic Mr. Forrest, who quit his slave mart and took up a sword in the Civil War, becoming one of the most wickedly brilliant generals in American history. After the war he returned to Memphis, where, after briefly serving as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, he apparently experienced an epiphany—renouncing the Klan with seeming genuineness and calling for racial reconciliation shortly before his death.

But music was the city’s greatest gift and particular genius: the blues of W. C. Handy’s Beale Street, the soul of Stax Records, and a certain interracial sound stew that a redneck wizard named Sam Phillips cooked up in a tiny studio on Union Avenue, less than a hundred yards from where Forrest lay buried. At its essence, the music of Memphis was about the fecund intermingling of black and white. Elvis Presley, coaxed and prodded by Phillips, found a way to transmute the raw sound of Beale Street into something that would resonate across the world. The stars, white and black, who had passed through the studios and nightclubs of Memphis were as numerous as they were legendary: not just Elvis, but Rufus Thomas, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Albert King, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Roy Orbison, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, Memphis Slim. The phantom- like Robert Johnson, perhaps the greatest of the Delta bluesmen, lived in and around Memphis much of his short, tragic life. It could be argued that over the decades, Memphis’s musical ferment had done more to integrate the country than a hundred pieces of legislation.

In a way, cotton was at the center of the ferment, for cotton had spawned the blues, and cotton had built the city that gave the blues its first wider expression. But there was no mistaking the fact that most black folks in Memphis were good and done with cotton, and they hated most everything about the hairy prickly shrub that had so long enslaved them. Certainly not many black people were to be found on the banks of the river on that May night in 1967, awaiting the arrival of the Royal Barge.

n

The skies over Arkansas ripened to a final brilliant red before closing into darkness. It seemed as though the sun had literally buried itself in cotton fields. An orchestra played strains of Vivaldi, and the heavens crackled with fireworks.

Then, from under the bridge, the dazzling vessel slipped into view, with the crowds gasping in wonder. At first it was just a burst of bright light, a diaphanous vision floating out on the currents. As it drew nearer to the harbor, the ravishing details began to emerge. The barge was the size of a football field, with a giant art deco cotton boll rising over the sparkling set. Egyptian motifs were woven into the decorations—pyramids, sphinxes, hieroglyphics: the Old South meets the land of the pharaohs.

Seated on their thrones high up in the towering boll were King Joseph and Queen Blanche, 1967’s monarchs, wearing their crowns, holding their scepters. As always, they’d been chosen in secret, by some obscure protocol known only to the Mystic Society of the Memphi. As always, he was an older man, a business potentate, while she was a nubile paragon of Southern pulchritude, college aged and presumably a virgin. They were blindingly white people, in blindingly white clothes, sitting high in their resplendent perch. In unison, they cupped their gloved hands and gave the crowds tiny swiveling waves, as if to say, Here we are! . . . There you are! . . . We’re all here!

More than a hundred people made up the royal court, all posed together on the barge like the largest wedding party ever assembled. There were the duchesses, the counts, the pages, the princesses and their tuxedoed escorts. There were the young girls, who curtsied with labored formality and attended the train of Her Majesty’s gown. There were the weevils, the masked green jesters whose identities were unknown. On one side of the Royal Barge stood the Ladies of the Realm— belles from plantation towns all over the Mississippi Delta. On the other side were the Ladies-in-Waiting—belles from the city, from good families, and of marriageable age.

The court moved about the barge in a carefully choreographed promenade. Everyone was smiling, bowing, waving, beaming. “Don’t get wise with me,” the king warned, “or I’ll have you all beheaded.” When the music reached a fever pitch, King Joseph and Queen Blanche rose and took a bow. All along the bluff, the seventy-five thousand loyal subjects erupted in thunderous cheers: Hail, King Cotton and His Queen!

Then, in a swirl of lights, the court began to parade off the stage, and off the barge, and onto the old cobblestones, the royals closely gaurded by uniformed young men dressed as Confederate colonels. Like Peabody ducks, the revelers strutted down a long red carpet to a waiting convoy of Cadillac convertibles and were whisked away to the first parties of the season.


From the Hardcover edition.
Hampton Sides|Author Q&A

About Hampton Sides

Hampton Sides - Hellhound On His Trail

Photo © Camilla Hewett

Hampton Sides is an award-winning editor of Outside and the author of the bestselling histories Hellhound on his Trial, Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.

Author Q&A

 
 
How did the idea for Hellhound on His Trail come to you? What made you decide to focus on James Earl Ray?
So many books have concentrated on either advancing or debunking conspiracy theories about the King assassination, but few have looked hard at James Earl Ray himself. Who was this guy? What were his habits, his movements, his motives? I found him to be profoundly screwed up, but screwed up in an absolutely fascinating way. He was a kind of empty vessel of the culture. He was drawn to so many fads and pop-trends of the late nineteen-sixties. He got a nose job, took dancing lessons, graduated from bar-tending school, got into hypnosis and weird self-help books, enrolled in a locksmithing course, even aspired to be a porn director. His personality had all these quirks and contradictions. He was supposedly stupid, but he somehow managed to escape from two maximum security prisons. Some claimed he wasn’t a racist, yet he worked for the Wallace Campaign, called King “Martin Lucifer Coon,” tried to emigrate to Rhodesia to become a mercenary soldier, and eventually hired a Nazi lawyer to defend him. He lived in absolute filth and squalor, but kept his clothes fastidiously laundered. And in the end, ironically, that’s what caught him: A tiny identifying laundry tag stamped into the inseam of a pair of undershorts found near the scene of the King assassination.
 
The “Notes” and “Bibliography” sections of Hellhound on His Trail total more than 50 pages—how did you begin to tackle the wealth of information that exists about Martin Luther King’s assassination? What was your research process like?
The research nearly gave me an aneurysm. But in the end, Hellhound is a work of narrative history, not a journalistic expose. I don't think I unearthed any massive bombshells that will change the world forever——like, say, proving once and for all that J. Edgar Hoover actually orchestrated the whole affair. Instead, what I unearthed were thousands and thousands of tiny details that make the story come alive on the page and make it possible, for the first time, to understand the tragedy as a complete, multi-stranded narrative. The book's packed full of novelistic detail——weather, architecture, what people were wearing, what the landscape looked like, the music that was playing on the radio. To get all this stuff, I had to do the usual sort of archival work——from the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin to the London newspaper archives——and I went pretty much everywhere James Earl Ray went, following in his fugitive footsteps: Puerto Vallarta, Toronto, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Birmingham, Lisbon, London. But my real ace in the hole was a retired Memphis cop named Vince Hughes who has compiled the most fascinating, and most comprehensive, digital archive about the MLK assassination on the planet: Crime scene photos, police reports, unexpurgated FBI files, audio tapes, and many hundreds of thousands of unpublished documents that proved a real godsend. Every non-fiction writer needs to find a guy named Vince. Thank God I found mine.
 
Has being a Memphis native affected your perspective on King’s death?
I think all writers sooner or later need to return to the place where they came from. In this case, I wanted to go back to the pivotal moment in the place where I came from. The King assassination is probably the most profound, most devastating, most controversial event that's ever happened in my hometown. Growing up as a kid I was always somewhat ashamed that King was killed there. The shockwaves still emanate from Room #306 at the Lorraine and still reverberate over our city, and our country, and our world. As a journalist and a historian with deep roots in Memphis, I couldn't ignore this story if I tried. I had personal connections to it, as well. My dad worked for the law firm that represented King when he came to Memphis on behalf of the striking garbage workers. My grandfather had a photographic studio downtown——the Blue Light——that was very close to the action. I majored in Southern history in college, and much of my early work at my first job——as a staff writer at Memphis magazine——focused on race relations. All of these influences made the King assassination a natural next book for me. In the end, I wanted readers to come away from the book with a sense of Memphis as a character——as this amazing, rich, somewhat tragic city perched on the racial fault-line, the only city of any size in America named after an African capital. King could have been killed anywhere, —in Akron or Anaheim, for godsakes. That he was killed in Memphis, the capital of blues, cotton, barbecue, rock ’n roll, soul, and the Delta, feels almost scripted by fate. And that's the way I came to regard the story, as a slow accretion of small mishaps and local circumstances that built inexorably toward what seems, in hindsight, like a Greek tragedy. 
 
How did you come up with the title? Is there significance to it?
It comes from the famous Robert Johnson blues song, “Hellhound On My Trail,” which is about being pursued by fate, by the law, and ultimately by death. Johnson was the greatest of the Delta bluesmen, and he lived in and around Memphis much of his short tragic life. It was said that he’d gone to The Crossroads and sold his soul to the devil to learn to play the guitar, so he was always looking over his shoulder for his time to come. When King arrived in Memphis in 1968, he was representing black garbage workers who were mostly former plantation hands from Johnson country, from the Delta cotton fields. As a title, “hellhound” seemed evocative on twin levels: For King, who was constantly being hounded by death threats and Hoover’s FBI, as well as for Ray, who became the target of the largest manhunt in American history.
 
The King assassination, like the JFK assassination, is rife with conspiracy theories. How did you deal with them?
At the outset of my research, I took very seriously the idea that there might have been a conspiracy. I read all the conspiracy books, examined every angle. The only problem with the conspiracy theories that are out there, I found, is that they invariably fail the most basic test: They raise more questions than they address, they create more problems than they solve. And they’re so monumentally complicated: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, the Green Berets, President Johnson, the Memphis Police Department, the Memphis Fire Department, the Memphis Mayor’s Office, the Boy Scouts of America—everybody killed Martin Luther King! But as I got into it, it became clear that the evidence against James Earl Ray was overwhelming. He bought the rifle, the scope, the ammo, the binoculars. He checked into that rooming house three hours before the murder. He peeled out from the rooming house one minute after the murder, in the same getaway car described by eyewitnesses. He admitted to every one of these things. His only defense was that some other guy—a mysterious man he called Raoul —pulled the trigger. Well, there’s not a shred of evidence that Raoul ever existed. So in Hellhound, I take the clear position that Ray did it, but I leave many doors ajar as to the question of whether he had help, whether he was working in the hope of winning bounty money, whether members of his own family abetted him. When in doubt, I generally err on the side of Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is usually the right one.
 
Ray appears to have been inspired by George Wallace’s racial rhetoric. What effect did it have on him?
Demagogues often fail to understand what happens when they put out their poison. Wallace and other segregationist politicians weren’t literally saying, “Go kill King.” On the other hand, they created an environment in which a disturbed but also ambitious man like Ray could think it was OK to kill King—could think that the society would smile on his crime. The culture of hate was intense in 1968, just as it is now. And Ray was powerfully drawn to it, so much so that he moved to Alabama for awhile and even volunteered for the Wallace campaign. 
 
Can you compare Hellhound on His Trail to your previous books? Are there similarities among them?
I don’t concentrate on any one period of history, I like to locate my stories in wildly different eras and places. I seem to be drawn to large, sprawling, uncomfortable swaths of American history, finding embedded within them a tight narrative that involves strife, heroism, and survival under difficult circumstances. My histories tend to be character-driven, with a lot of plot, a lot of action. I don’t think you’d find me writing about, say, the Constitutional Convention or the Transcendental Movement. A friend once told me I’m interested in “human disasters”— social storms of one sort or another, and the ways in which people survive them, through courage, ingenuity, grace under pressure, luck. That’s true of the Bataan Death March, with the conquest of the West, and now, here, with the end of the Civil Rights era.
 
Aside from the amount of time required, how does writing a book differ from writing a magazine piece (such as you’ve done for Outside, among other publications)? Is it easy for you to move between these mediums?
I find there’s a thin, permeable membrane between journalism and history, and though some academic historians take a dim view of it, I gather a lot of strength and professional inspiration from passing back and forth across it. I approach my histories like a journalist, in fact. I look for the stress points, the controversies, the points of clashing and collision, and I look for subjects that still have a pulse in contemporary life. And when I finish a book, I like to jump right back in and take on a bunch of magazine assignments to clear my head and cleanse my palate. I think my journalism buttresses my history books, and vice versa.
 
What made you decide to pursue writing as a career? Have you always wanted to be a journalist?
The first writer I ever met growing up in Memphis was Shelby Foote, the great Civil War historian, and he gave me certain ideas at an early age about what narrative history can aspire to be. My other deep influence was John Hersey, who wrote Hiroshima, and was my teacher in college. But really it all started when I was just a kid. By the age of nine or ten, I knew that I loved history and writing. It got hold of me and never turned loose.
 
Some of the early reviews have described Hellhound as a non-fiction thriller. How do you feel about that?
A number of people who've read it have told me it reads like a big detective story——like Day of the Jackal, or something. If it is a thriller, then I suppose a critic could say that I've taken a national tragedy and turned it into an entertainment of sorts, and I don’t like the sound of that. On the other hand, I don't apologize for trying to make history fluid and enjoyable to read. In fact, I work hard at it. I really wrassle with the structure and the architecture, the interweave of characters, the plot-lines and the pacing and all the thousand-and-one details that keep the story humming along. But if this book’s a thriller, it's also a requiem——the story of the last days of a great man and the end of his movement. When it comes to the passages on King, I think it's quite evident to readers that, though I show him warts and all, I'm absolutely in awe of the man and his ferocious eloquence and his otherworldly courage. I think he was the closest thing we've had in our history to a heaven-sent agent of social change. People like King only come along every thousand years or so. 
         
One of the most compelling things about Hellhound is the role of the FBI. In the first third, the FBI is something of a villain, but by the last third, it’s the protagonist.
There's good and bad in all people and all institutions, and in this book, as with my previous ones, I’m more drawn to graduations of character than to absolutes. I don't wrap King and his movement in a halo-glow, as so many books have done. I've tried to make him human on the page——which means flawed, vulnerable, full of doubts, uncertain about the future, and buffeted by the stresses of his position. By the same token, I don't operate under the assumption that all FBI agents are evil, as so many of the conspiracy books have done. I find it absolutely fascinating that Hoover's FBI, the very agency that had done everything within its power to ruin and smear King, was then commissioned with the responsibility of finding King's killer. And once embarked on that task, they did an extraordinary job. It was the largest manhunt, for a single criminal, in American history. It got down to the level of fibers, fingerprints, laundry tags, and the microscopic numbers on a transistor radio. The field agents were doing the job they were created for——solving crimes important to the nation. It was one of the FBI's finest hours.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

 
"Viscerally dramatic … spellbinding … Both Dr. King and Ray come to life in these remarkable pages. " —The New York Times
 
 “Impossible-to-put-down . . . a masterful work of narrative nonfiction, no one does it better than Hampton Sides.” —Associated Press
 
"Gripping, exciting, and engrossing . . . hits us with the shuddering intensity of a high-speed collision." —The Times of London
 
"A taut, vibrant account....chilling in detail and particularly haunting in evoking the confusion and pathos in the minutes following the single crack of Ray's rifle." —Los Angeles Times

"An authoritative, engrossing narrative....thoroughly researched but executed with the pacing of a fine novel and a dash of top-notch police procedural....meticulous."--Miami Herald
 
"Searing. . . . A complex crime mystery that shifts the focus from Dr. King to his killer. . . . Gripping."--Wall Street Journal
 
"As urgent a page-turner as any crime novel — a feat Sides accomplishes without sacrificing historical detail and insight." --St. Petersburg Times 

“Remarkable. . . . A window on the passions and contradictions of an era....a page-turner."--Christian Science Monitor

"A riveting re-creation of a tragedy. . . . Through Sides’ use of novelistic pacing, details and descriptions, he creates suspense that will propel readers through a slice of history."--USA Today

"Enlightening . . . a valuable contribution to the historical record [and] a memorable and persuasive portrait." --The Washington Post
 
"Meticulously researched, reads like nothing so much as a novel ... creating plenty of plain old-fashioned suspense that makes the reader's heart pound."--The Portland Oregonian

"It's as much thriller as history book and the compulsive story races along like a fugitive on the lam."--San Francisco Gate
 
"Sides' meticulous yet driving account of Ray's plot to murder King and the 68-day international manhunt that followed is in essence a true-crime story and a splendid specimen of the genre—a genuine corker.”--Salon
 
"Remarkable journalism. . . . compulsively readable. . . . [Sides] writes . . . with a passion that resonates.....Compelling" --Dallas Morning News

"Extraordinary....remarkable journalism.....compulsively readable." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Hellhound unfolds like a mystery--one read not for the ending but for all the missteps, gotchas and near misses along the way."--Time

"Exhaustively researched, fast-paced and at times minute-by-minute telling....To Sides' great credit, this is a feat of shoe-leather reporting and research....astonishing....briskly alive."--Austin American Statesman

"Meticulous....a page turner, and something more: It brings the disquiet of an era fully alive."—Bloomberg

"A carefully researched and crisply written account....Sides crafts careful profiles of his major characters"--St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"[Sides] masterfully recreates the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr ....Though the outcome is clear, we are nonetheless rapt—and then devastated."--Time Out New York

"Nailbitingly riveting."--Newsday
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Hellhound On His Trail.

About the Guide

From the acclaimed bestselling author of Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder, a taut, intense narrative about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the largest manhunt in American history.

On April 23, 1967, Prisoner #416J, an inmate at the notorious Missouri State Penitentiary, escaped in a breadbox. Fashioning himself Eric Galt, this nondescript thief and con man—whose real name was James Earl Ray—drifted through the South, into Mexico, and then Los Angeles, where he was galvanized by George Wallace’s racist presidential campaign.

On February 1, 1968, two Memphis garbage men were crushed to death in their hydraulic truck, provoking the exclusively African American workforce to go on strike. Hoping to resuscitate his faltering crusade, King joined the sanitation workers’ cause, but their march down Beale Street, the historic avenue of the blues, turned violent. Humiliated, King fatefully vowed to return to Memphis in April.

With relentless storytelling drive, Sides follows Galt and King as they crisscross the country, one stalking the other, until the crushing moment at the Lorraine Motel when the drifter catches up with his prey. Against the backdrop of the resulting nationwide riots and the pathos of King’s funeral, Sides gives us a riveting cross-cut narrative of the assassin’s flight and the sixty-five-day search that led investigators to Canada, Portugal, and England—a massive manhunt ironically led by Hoover’s FBI.

Magnificent in scope, drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished material, this nonfiction thriller illuminates one of the darkest hours in American life—an example of how history is so often a matter of the petty bringing down the great.

About the Author

A native of Memphis, Hampton Sides is editor-at-large for Outside magazine and the author of the international best-seller, Ghost Soldiers (Doubleday), which was the basis for the 2005 Miramax film, The Great Raid. Ghost Soldiers won the 2002 PEN USA award for non-fiction and the 2002 Discover Award from Barnes & Noble, and his magazine work has been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing. Hampton is also the author of Americana (Anchor) and Stomping Grounds (William Morrow). A graduate of Yale with a B.A. in history, he lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.

Discussion Guides

1. In Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides examines a notorious moment in American history— the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., by James Earl Ray—and provides many never-before-revealed details about Ray, King, and the fateful events leading up to April 4, 1968. To fully appreciate the context of this tragic event in our nation’s past, your discussion group might consider reading about the civil rights era in the 1960s and the larger issues that surrounded King’s death. Here are some resources that offer interesting and useful information.
 
• Britannica Online entries for the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination:
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/119368/Civil-Rights-Movement
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/318311/Martin-Luther-King-Jr

• The website for the King Center:
http://www.thekingcenter.org/Default.aspx
 
• PBS.org’s “Learn and Explore” section; search “Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)”:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/teachers/index.html

• PBS.org's “Roads to Memphis” American Experience Film
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/introduction/memphis-introduction/

2. Which characters came alive for you in Hellhound on His Trail? Did you learn anything new about some of the figures involved in this period of American history, or have you come to think about certain individuals in a different way based on what you’ve read about them?

3. In his “Note to Readers,” Hampton Sides writes, “All writers sooner or later go back to the place where they came from.” Having been a child living in Memphis when Martin Luther King was shot, do you think Sides separated himself from the events he reported on in this book? Consider this question in context to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 or the tragic attacks of 9/11: Is it possible to be a journalistic observer of an occurrence like this when it happens in your hometown?

4. Every fact and incident in Hellhound on His Trail is impeccably sourced, yet it has the narrative drive of a thriller. What did you think of the author’s treatment of the subject matter? When reading about a major historical event such as this one, do you prefer a narrative like the one Sides has constructed, one that re-creates the immediacy of the time, or a more straightforward timeline of events? How might this book differ from other nonfiction titles you may have read on the subject?

5. There are many who believe that James Earl Ray was part of a larger conspiracy and was set up to be the “fall guy” for King’s assassination. Based on the evidence the author presents in Hellhound on His Trail, do you believe Ray was the sole person responsible for King’s death? If so, why do you think theories of a conspiracy have persisted?

6. Talk about Ray’s escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City and his time on the lam before arriving in Memphis. Would he have been able to remain as anonymous today as he did then? Talk about how society has changed since 1968: are people more or less trusting of loners like Ray nowadays?

7. In Chapter 2, the author describes King as having reached a point in his career where he had “slipped in stature, even among his own people.” Were you aware of this dip in King’s popularity, and if so, was it surprising to you? Talk about history’s perpetuation of legend: in highlighting the achievements of a man such as King, do any cracks in his reputation become repaired, or disappear, over time?

8. Chapter 4 details FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta against King and his determination to expose King’s personal transgressions. But while Hoover and his staff regularly tried to leak salacious details to the press, in Sides’s words, “the media never took the bait.” Why do you think this was the case? How has the media evolved in the last 50 years, especially in matters regarding the private behavior of public figures?

9. Consider the political rise of George Wallace during this period, and the number of people—including James Earl Ray—who were galvanized by his presidential campaign, particularly his pro-segregationist, if not outright racist, positions. Does Wallace bear some responsibility for King’s assassination?

10. Do you see parallels between any of today’s political movements and George Wallace’s campaigns for office?

11. The manhunt that organized in the hours and days after King’s assassination was epic; most notably, more than 3,000 FBI agents took part, and it cost upwards of $2 million (which, adjusted for inflation, would be more than $13.6 million today). Considering how much Hoover despised King, was it startling that he mobilized the bureau to such an enormous extent to find his killer?

12. Martin Luther King “believed nonviolence was a more potent force for self-protection than any weapon,” (page 159). Given the threats he routinely faced—including the firebombing of his home in 1956 and being stabbed by a deranged woman in 1958—why did King nonetheless ban his staff from carrying guns or other weaponry?

13. “The bureau was well aware of the existence of bounties on King’s head,” (page 343). By not better protecting King in light of these threats, and for not realizing the impact his death would have on the nation, should the FBI have shared the blame for King’s death?

14. Book Two of Hellhound on His Trail opens with this quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “For murder, though it hath no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.” Why did the author choose to include this quote? What do you think this quote says about Ray?

15. Was it surprising to read about how easily Ray was able to slip out of Memphis after the shootings? Could he have been stopped sooner? Do you think Ray could have gotten away with his crime if he committed it today?

16. As Ray flees Canada for Europe, his desperation becomes acute and he begins to make mistakes that leave him exposed. Why was he was able to remain on the run for as long as he did? Think about his two critical errors in London as he entered Heathrow Airport to board a flight to Brussels. Considering his meticulousness at other points while in hiding, why did Ray try to walk through customs with two slightly different passports and a loaded gun in his pocket?

17. Shortly after Ray pled guilty to killing King and was sent to prison, he began to recant his involvement in the assassination and asked to be put on trial. And in the late 1990s, members of King’s family—notably his son Dexter and his wife Coretta—came out publicly to urge that Ray have his day in court. Should Ray been given a trial?

18. “Throughout James Earl Ray’s life, the despair was panoramic. The family suffered from exactly the sort of bleak, multigenerational poverty that King’s Poor People’s Campaign was designed to address.” Consider this paradox that the author highlights. What led Ray to his life of crime? If King’s efforts had made a difference in the life of someone like Ray, would Ray have taken another path in life?

19. What would have happened if Ray himself was murdered, much like John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed by Jack Ruby? What benefits, if any, have come from Ray’s remaining alive (until 1998) and speaking out? If Ray had died in the act of killing King, would the collective reaction of the country—riots, unrest—have been the same?

20. There are many labels that have been applied to James Earl Ray, among them: insane, criminal, racist, loner, oddball. How would you characterize him?

21. What do you believe would have happened to the civil rights movement had King lived? Would anything be different today?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

Suggested Readings

Here is a listing of some key books, websites, and programming readers may wish to consult after reading this book. Additionally, Hellhound on His Trail offers a complete bibliography of the author’s sources.
 
BOOKS:
At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years (1965–68) by Taylor Branch (2007; Simon & Schuster trade paperback edition).
 
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (2001; Grand Central Publishing trade paperback edition).
 
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow (2004; Harper Perennial Modern Classics trade paperback edition).
 
Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Gerald Posner (1999; Harvest Books trade paperback edition).
 
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years (1954–63) by Taylor Branch (1989; Simon & Schuster trade paperback edition).
 
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years (1963–65) by Taylor Branch (1999; Simon & Schuster trade paperback edition).
 
DOCUMENTARIES:
Black History: A Retrospective (2010); Mill Creek Entertainment DVD set; 1,080 minutes; not rated.
 
I Have a Dream (2005), MPI Home Video DVD, 60 minutes, not rated.
 
Who Killed Martin Luther King? (2008), Clarendon Entertainment DVD, 65 minutes, not rated.
 
[note from LM: when “ROADS TO MEMPHIS” documentary is posted on PBS.org, I will add a link]
 
WEBSITES AND ONLINE RESOURCES:
The History Channel’s Voices of Civil Rights project:
http://www.history.com/classroom/voices/
 
The King Center, Atlanta:
http://www.thekingcenter.org/Default.aspx
 
The King Institute Online Encyclopedia:
http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia_contents
 
The King Papers Project at Stanford University:
http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/index
 
MLK Online:
http://www.mlkonline.net/sounds.html
 
National Civil Rights Museum, Lorraine Hotel, Memphis:
http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/home.htm
 
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, transcript of episode following James Earl Ray’s death in April 1998:
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/race_relations/jan-june98/ray_4-23.html
 
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference:
http://www.sclcnational.org/net/content/page.aspx?s=25461.0.12.2607
Related Videos

On the Web


Bestselling author Hampton Sides discusses his new book, HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL

  • Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides
  • March 22, 2011
  • History - Social History
  • Anchor
  • $15.95
  • 9780307387431

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