Conspiracy theorists, I’m glad you’re out there piecing together the puzzles and challenging assumptions. Somebody’s got to do it. We better not all sit back and believe what they tell us.
It’s been more than four decades since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, however, and the one thing that I find hard to believe is that not one person who might have been involved in setting up the conspiracy to have King killed—and think about the tight network of people it would take to pull it off—has broken ranks and told what “really” happened.
Conspiracy theorists, keep on rocking in the free world but until we have something solid, something we can hang our hats on, I don’t mind taking my history from a Yale-trained writer and researcher like Hampton Sides.
“Hellhound On His Trail” is fine reading to me—a terrific, hefty and moving piece of narrative non-fiction about one of the most riveting moments of the 1960’s. In tremendous detail, Sides’ shows the many forces that came to bear on the ugly day in Memphis in April of 1968.
Sides breaks the story down, roughly, into two halves. The first half is the journey of James Earl Ray (a.k.a. Eric Galt) in the months leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sides refers to Ray throughout these sections as Galt (he’s an escaped prisoner) as he drifts through Mexico and later Los Angeles and as he involves himself in George Wallace’s political movement and its “odd assortment of xenophobes, mavericks, drifters, seekers, ultra-right wingers, hard core racists, libertarians, dreamers and out and out lunatics.” The Wallace group is a “loose confederacy of misfits” and Ray/Galt fits right in. This is a searing portrait of a lost, wandering and disconnected soul. The first half ends as Ray/Galt makes his way to Memphis, winding his way toward the rooming house adjacent to the Lorraine Motel. (I’ve got to say it was unsettling through the first section of this book to have Sides refer to Ray as Galt.)
The second half is the hunt for Ray/Galt and the clues that lead authorities on a chase that leads to Atlanta, Toronto and England. Flipping back and forth from Ray’s point of view to the authorities makes for a compelling narrative as Ray manages to steal an identity in Toronto and tries to disappear into the back streets of London. It’s always the little things that make a difference in a massive manhunt like this one—and the ability of international police cooperation are what lead up to the moment when a young immigration officer at Heathrow Airport questions Ray (then under the alias Ramon George Sneyd). That immigration officer then pulls in a Scotland Yard detective who notices the name Sneyd on the “Watch For and Detain” list and the chase comes to a gripping end.
The hunt is terrific story-telling, chock full of rich details. Sides mixes the right combination of atmosphere and forward movement throughout the story. While Ray/Sneyd is in London planning his next move and “growing panic” sets in, he is staying at a little hotel called Pax. Writes Sides: “Dressed in a beige raincoat with a bundle of papers under his arms, Sneyd asked the hotel’s Swedish-born owner, Anna Thomas, for aspirin to soothe his throbbing headache—then went up to his room, which was small but clean, its walls decorated in a cheerful pattern of blue peacocks.”
But “Hellhound” is more much more than a series of plot points. Sides captures the heavy politics and racial mood of the late 1960’s—in-fighting in Washington, in-fighting in the King camp, the struggles in Memphis and across the South to move the Civil Rights efforts beyond talk and into the fabric of life. As the nation grapples with King’s murder, Sides writes, “the whole nation, it seemed, was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.”
Along the way, are a cast of well-known figures including Ramsey Clark, Jesse Jackson (who is not flattered by this book), Ralph Abernathy, and J. Edgar Hoover. (“Hoover must have shuddered at the thought that his bureau was now charged with the responsibility of solving the murder of a man he detested a man he and his agents had tried to smear.”) Dr. King emerges from “Hellhound” with a few blemishes. A principled man? Hardly.
With a final coda (Ray’s escape from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary), “Hellhound On His Trail” never flags. As with all tragedies, you end up pondering all the little things that had to go perfectly right for everything to happen the way it did. That was true for Ray as he planned the assassination. It was true for the authorities as they tracked down the killer. (If the conspiracy theorists are right, everything went perfectly too. Either Ray had lots of help or someone else pulled the trigger and nobody has yet figured exactly how this happened.)
Sides never addresses head-on the idea that Ray might have had help. He could have spent a chapter or two de-bunking the questions. He lets the known facts speak for themselves—and they suggest Ray acted alone. If he was being guided, led or supported—by whom? And when? When did he meet with “them?” How did “they” tell him where to go, what to do? If it wasn’t Ray, why did Ray flee to Canada and England? The available details reveal no contact with anyone outside Ray’s little, miserable orbit.
Read “Hellhound” for the history and see if you can find the holes or cracks. I’m open to something new coming forward. Yes, it’s possible. For now, I’ll take what’s laid out in “Hellhound” and marvel at this version of events around one of the roughest moments in American history.