In addition to a professed love for campaign books, I have a real appreciation for history books about the late sixties. If I were ever to go back and get a masters in history, I’d want to study 1968 in depth. Without question, it was a dreadful year in our history and the effects of it are still felt nearly 40+ years later. There are great books out there on this topic already, including Jules Witcover’s “The Year the Dream Died,” Clay Risen’s “A Nation On Fire,” Theodore White’s “Making of the President 1968,” and Norman Mailer’s “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.” All excellent and there are plenty of others, too.
The twin tragedies of 1968 were the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. That history has always been told with a lens on the witnesses—the campaign worker, the rioter, the family member, the newspaper reporter, the public. And almost always, that history has been mostly about the person killed. But what about the assassin? Thanks to Hampton Sides, the author of “Hellhound on His Trail,” we get a lens on the evil human who stalked and murdered Martin Luther King. His name was, as you all know, James Earl Ray.
But Sides doesn’t mention the name James Earl Ray until page 321. Up until that point, Ray is known by his aliases, especially Eric Galt, and also Ramon Sneyd, and Harvey Lowmeyer. This was a thrilling and haunting read. A book like this could easily have been sold as fiction and would have been a bestselling novel about the hunt for an assassin. But that it was about Martin Luther King’s assassin makes it so much more eerie. I almost didn’t want to enjoy this book, but it was a terrific tale that illuminated a perspective of 1968 that must be explored.
Ray was a racist. He plotted and planned a murder for months. He literally stalked Dr. King across the South, all the while planning his murder. Sides gives us more of the day by day travelogue of Ray, and less of the “what’s in this guy’s head that makes him a murderer,” but the detail is astonishing nonetheless. From a bizarre trip to get a nosejob to strange encounters in brothels, Ray was obviously deranged, yet smarter than the average murderer.
Through the first third of the book, Sides tracks Dr. King and Ray’s movements until they collide in Memphis. The portrait of King is also frightening. One only has to browse King’s last speech and will be haunted by the foreshadowing of his death. Sides adds to this, all of it pointing to the fact that King was at a personal crossroads with the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign in D.C. and tension between “old-guard” black leadership and new, more “militant” perspectives. The collision almost seems preordained.
Then the book splits and tracks the impressive, two-month long manhunt. Despite being led by the King-hating J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI managed to marshal all of its resources (no CSI computers to track fingerprints–all done manually) to stalk the killer. Ray came within moments of escaping, and in a small irony, the murderer is finally arrested in Europe by an officer with the last name “Human.”
All during the hunt for Ray, which is the stuff page-turners are made of, Sides peppers the book with many other of the domestic tragedies of 1968, including the riots, the killing of Bobby Kennedy, and the unraveling of the Poor People’s Campaign. Most of those topics have been written about extensively–but the brilliance of this book is that while so much else was happening, thousands of law enforcement personnel believed that unless they caught King’s killer, the whole world would spin (further) out of control.
As a broader reflection, the more I read about 1968, the more it seems like a fiction. It’s not hard to imagine being completely overwhelmed if you had to live through that. Your government was sending people to die in Vietnam, cities (long places of American glory) were burning, promising leaders of the future were being killed, and everything seemed to be in upheaval. Oh, and then you picked Nixon. Is that the year we spun off course as a country? Would our country have been noticeably different today if that year hadn’t been so awful? Probably. More likely, the wheels and gears were set in motion years before. Yet it sure seems like 1968 did something to our psyche that still leaves us still in need of a national therapy session.
This book begins with Ray’s escape from prison, which put him on the path to murder King. In an unusual historical footnote, it ends with a short epilogue in 1977, when Ray broke out of a maximum security prison and was on the lam for a few days again. The incident was a stark reminder of the undercurrent of evil that seemed to surround James Earl Ray. Something more than just his own cunning helped him plot and execute this murder, and something more than just his luck helped him escape. Sides leaves the question of whether Ray acted completely alone unanswered. Whether it was human or not, Ray had the cooperation of something sinister and evil to help him along the way.