We all know the photograph: Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and others on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel pointing in the direction of the gunshots that killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Hampton Sides has amplified this image and brought it into terrifying relief in his brilliant new book, Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin.
It is a story that has been written about, some might say exhaustively, already. But Sides makes it personal:
“I was just a kid when it happened—six years old, living in a rambling brick house on Cherry Road close by the Southern Railway. My father worked for the Memphis law firm that represented King when he came to town on behalf of the garbage workers, and I remember my dad running home that night, pouring a screwdriver or three, and talking with alarm about what had happened and what it meant for the city and the nation and the world. . . . I recall the fear in the adult voices coming over the radio and television—the undertow of panic, as it seemed to everyone that our city was ripping apart.”
And then he says, “All writers sooner or later go back to the place where they came from.”
This is the focus of the book, Memphis, backward and forward up to that “pivotal moment” when Martin Luther King came to support the garbage workers on strike. King was killed here, and in the aftermath of the assassination, 150 American cities were burning, out of rage, out of grief, out of fear.
Sides braids a narrative that entwines the intricacies of the civil rights movement with the strange yet calculating moves of James Earl Ray, as King’s assassin travels from Missouri to Mexico to California and back to Georgia and Tennessee on a mission.
We witness King’s fatigue, having been married to the movement for more than a decade.
We feel his frustration with the younger generation of black leaders like Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers who are advocating a more forceful, even violent alternative to his nonviolent practices.
We feel his heartbreak as his march in Memphis down Beale Street erupts into violence, where one sixteen-year-old black boy is killed, sixty people are injured, and more than 150 arrested.
We feel his despair, as he, along with the rest of America, casts real doubt on whether he will have any further influence within the civil rights movement.
Simultaneously, we watch a man plot his escape from a Missouri prison. He succeeds as he folds himself into a large steel box lined with loaves of bread below him and above him, to be carried out of the penitentiary and placed in the rear of a truck that routinely delivers bread to the nearby Honor Ranch in Missouri. He gets out of the box, jumps out of the truck, and makes his getaway. He works as a volunteer for George Wallace’s Presidential campaign, and slowly, gradually, we see his obsession with “Martin Luther Coon” materialize, taking him back to the South for the sole purpose of killing the civil rights leader.
James Earl Ray’s actual name is not mentioned until page 321. Instead, we follow a series of aliases given to this mediocre man who murdered a magnificent one. Ray went by the names of Eric S. Galt, Harvey Lowmeyer, John Willard, and, lastly, Ramon George Sneyd. This is a man who consciously chose his father’s own penchant for “fungible identities.”
We see the vantage point of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who believed King was “the most notorious liar in the country” and a communist. This perspective is juxtaposed with the views of U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who kept blocking Hoover’s edicts for wiretaps and warrants.
We watch the mounting frustration of President Lyndon B. Johnson as he feels betrayed by King’s criticism of the Vietnam War after Johnson supported civil rights legislation.
We note the racist appeal of Wallace’s campaign.
King always knew death was a possibility, that he could be slain and martyred. He knew Hoover hated him. He knew the Ku Klux Klan had offered a bounty on his head. And he appeared to have a strong premonition the night before he was shot in Memphis, as he rose and famously said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop . . . and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. . . . I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Less than twenty-four hours later, King was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel. Sides paints the scene seconds before the shot: King was leaning over the balcony. He was in an ebullient mood, teasing Jesse Jackson about wearing a turtleneck rather than a tie to a dinner party and requesting that a friend sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” later that night at the gathering.
And then he was gone.
Andrew Young, then a young leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said: “We aren’t so much concerned with who killed Martin, as with what killed him.”
And Coretta Scott King said, just days after the assassination of her husband, “There were many fingers on that rifle.”
Sides asks us to consider what creates our identity as a white American, as a black American, as a human being.
What forces within a society create an atmosphere where race hatred is tolerated and violence empowered?
In reading this book, I was struck by how relevant it is to where we find ourselves today, some forty years later. Substitute Sarah Palin’s name for George Wallace and we have the same kind of bald public bravado inciting hatred and bigotry. We have Arizona with its new law that promotes racial profiling and can demand papers of its citizens to prove their place of birth. We have Virginia declaring April as Confederate History Month, with slavery remembered with a note of nostalgia, not shame. We have tea partiers calling Representative John Lewis the “N” word and Representative Barney Frank a nasty homophobic slur.
What we have not seen yet is the same level of violence as in 1968. I pray we don’t. But given the heightened rhetoric coming out of the likes of Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh, I worry. Middle class, working class white Americans are scared. They are scared of a black President with a middle name “Hussein” who they insist was born elsewhere, not in the red-white-and-blue. They are scared of government taking over their lives, whether it is health care or gun control. They are scared America is becoming more brown than white, and they are scared about losing their jobs, their money, and having to pay more taxes.
I look at my own family. Just today, my father told me we will be paying up to 50 percent in taxes in the next year or two. And just last month, after the health care bill was passed, my uncle was called by the Minutemen Militia to report to Arizona to patrol the border and bring his “long-nose rifle.” What these patriots are longing to find in the lens of their binoculars are not rabbits or coyotes.
And at a recent family funeral in the dignified town of Logan, Utah, half of my relatives sitting around the dinner table after the service were “packing”—and I don’t mean a suitcase. Why? Because it is their God-given right as Americans, because they believe the federal government has gone too far in regulating their lives. They cite health care or the “hoax” of climate change, or the legalization of gay marriage and marijuana. And because their politics is informed by their religion, which warns of the time “when the government will hang by a thread,” they are ready to defend the Constitution and their ideas of freedom.
As a Utahn and Westerner, none of this surprises me. We lived through the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, and its members are back in their saddles railing once again against the feds and public lands. But what did give me a shudder was when my uncle, a former Utah state senator, said, “One thing does worry me.” When I asked him what that was, he said, “I’m worried about what I am seeing at the gun shows.” My uncle is a serious gun collector. “It’s not the materials on the militias that concerns me; it’s the material on the downright acts of anarchy being planned that scares the hell out of me.”
I didn’t ask any more questions. But I am now.
How can we proceed on a pathway that promotes peace, not aggression?
How can we honor what the Reverend Dr. King spent his life preaching?
And how can we bring accountability to those who are fueling the fires of racism?
If we don’t ask these hard questions together, then I fear those who are empowered to be angry right now will find among their ranks a few who will take that anger and turn it into an obsession that will lead to calculated acts of violence.
“Nothing is gained without sacrifice.” This was written on a scrap of paper and found inside Martin Luther King Jr.’s pocket when he was murdered. It reminds me of the question Senator Bob Bennett of Utah asked me after I had just given the commencement address at the University of Utah in May 2003, where he strongly disagreed with my views on the Iraq War.
Bennett asked me what I was willing to die for? I couldn’t answer him. I thought about it for months. And then one day, I realized while walking in the desert that for me, it’s not what I am willing to die for, but rather, what am I willing to give my life to: This is the question that matters most to me. Finally, I was able to write my Senator an honest answer. And what I am willing to give my life to is to work on behalf of a more civil society, be it through writing or teaching or being a better neighbor or niece.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I just want to leave a more committed life behind.” So then, this becomes another part of my question, “Committed to what?”
Each of us must answer that question for ourselves.
For me, I want to commit to a deeper engagement with those who see the world differently from how I see things.
I want to be aware of my own rhetoric and how it might be hurtful to others, yet at the same time have the courage to speak truthfully and powerfully on behalf of my own values.
And without sounding softheaded, I want to hold the intention of peace and nonviolence in my heart, which is essential, I believe, in cultivating a heightened consciousness toward the sacredness of life on this planet.
Albert Schweitzer simply called it “a reverence for life.” It was radical then. It is even more radical now.
Toward the end of Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides highlights the comment of civil rights activist Hosea Williams upon learning that James Earl Ray has been apprehended in London: “But I’m not nearly as worried by that one man as about the system that produced him—the system that killed President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. We are concerned with a sick and evil society.”
Martin Luther King Jr. committed himself to healing the ills of this sick society and to bringing about social change through spiritual nonviolence. It is what he was both willing to die for and give his life to. Most of us do not get the chance to live a life so large. But we do have the chance to live our lives with greater intention. King said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
I want to make that change within myself and the places I call home.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.