An Assassin's TalePrint
In the footsteps of the murderer of Martin Luther King Jr.
By Sridhar Pappu
Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides, Doubleday, 459 pp., $28.95
In April 1967, the man who would violently end a generation’s nonviolent quest for racial peace and justice was known only as a number. Prisoner 00416-J had spent seven years in the Missouri State Penitentiary before his escape in a metal box filled with bread. A year later he would be the most wanted man in America, if not the world—a man history would revile as the killer of Martin Luther King Jr.
00416-J was, of course, James Earl Ray, who is the protagonist of Hampton Sides’s meticulously rendered new narrative history, Hellhound on His Trail. Writing in the same vein as Stanley Wolpert in his 1962 novel, Nine Hours to Rama—which follows the assassin of Mohandas Gandhi in the last hours before his horrific act—Sides takes us through the aliases Ray used and the places he went after his prison escape. As Eric Galt, he travels from Mexico to California to Atlanta and finally to Memphis. Using the name John Willard, Ray checks into a flophouse with a view of the Lorraine Motel and from a bathroom window shoots and kills King and drives away in a white Mustang. He reinvents himself as a Canadian citizen named Ramon Sneyd and travels to England and Portugal and back to England before being caught, not by any of the 3,500 FBI people assigned to the case, but by Scotland Yard at Heathrow Airport as he tried to fly to Belgium.
Sides presents Ray as the unknown man, who moves without much past for most of the book, calling him by his aliases for each different incarnation, as if to let the reader know him as others around him did. Sides, the author of two earlier histories, Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers, artfully reveals Ray’s true identity only when the FBI unravels it in the final chapters.
At the same time, working in the shadow of Taylor Branch’s “America in the King Years” trilogy, Sides fully renders King as a man whose moment has passed. This is not the King of the 1963 March on Washington or the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. The 1957 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the event that launched King and with him the modern Civil Rights movement, seemed like a lifetime ago. King is a man lost. No longer faced with the wrath of Bull Connor, he has to face the forces of Black Power that ran counter to the nonviolent approach he had stood for all his life.
In April 1968, King had come to Memphis—the author’s beloved hometown—as a kind of redemptive measure to lead a peaceful march for striking black sanitation workers after an earlier attempt had been marred by violence. King had entered the next stage of his professional life, one that focused less on race and more on poverty—the struggles of the poorest people in America, whose lives were weighed down by systemic economic injustice. It was a far more complicated effort, one that was proving too hard for even King to lead. The black-and-white screen on which King had entered the world’s consciousness had turned violently Technicolor, and at 39 years old, he was, at the very least, at the brink of what had once been thought impossible—irrelevance to the future of American life. That changed with his martyrdom in Memphis.
That story many of us know. The strength of Sides’s book is in the assassin’s tale. We are with him in the brothels in Mexico, at dance lessons in Los Angeles, in rooming houses and small hotels across North America and on the other side of the Atlantic. Through Sides, we know of Ray’s search for inner calm by means of self-hypnosis. We learn that other people regarded him as moody but as a sharp dresser. Sides shows him not as the clumsy character that he has been portrayed as being, but as a man grimly competent at his task. He was the first prisoner to escape in the 130-year history of the prison where he was confined. No marksman, he managed to fire the fatal shots. Then he slipped out of Memphis ahead of the dragnet, made his way to Canada, and managed to get a real Canadian passport. Only when Ray begins to come unhinged while he is on the lam does he begin to make careless mistakes that reveal his real identity to the world.
For all its attention to detail, Hellhound ultimately leaves open fundamental questions. Why did Ray do it? Were there other people at work in the shadows backing him up? Without providing answers, Sides’s well-rendered facts are sadly just that—facts.
Sides does try. He addresses rumors of a larger plot and suggests that Ray’s racism and his admiration for the brash, bigoted Alabama governor George Wallace give a partial accounting, however unsatisfying, of Ray’s turn from con man to assassin. Ray pled guilty to King’s murder but then recanted and spent years denying he took the shot, claiming a man named “Raoul” had been the true killer. Even after a congressional committee investigating the King assassination concluded that “Raoul” was a work of fiction, Ray remained coy about both his motivation for killing King and whether others had helped him do it. In the end, Sides is unable to solve the mystery. The assassin eludes the pages of Hellhound as successfully as he did the dragnet that April day in Memphis. Still, given Ray’s slippery nature, one can’t help feeling that his absence has less to do with Sides than with the confusion sown by a lifetime of deceit.
Sridhar Pappu is a former correspondent for The Atlantic and staff writer for The Washington Post. He is working on a book about race, politics, and baseball in the 1960s.
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