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

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

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...

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Title:Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin
Author:Hampton Sides
Rating:
Edition Language:English

Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin Reviews

  • MK Brunskill-Cowen

    I wish I could give this book 6 stars - it deserves it. This book reads like a psychological thriller where the reader follows the hero and the villain as the move towards their fateful meeting. He captures the time, place and feelings of those involved, and we can feel the tension as JE Ray checks into the flophouse from which he fires the gun while Dr. King relaxes with his associates. He portrays Dr. King as a real human, warts and all, which only intensifies the importance of his mission. Li

    I wish I could give this book 6 stars - it deserves it. This book reads like a psychological thriller where the reader follows the hero and the villain as the move towards their fateful meeting. He captures the time, place and feelings of those involved, and we can feel the tension as JE Ray checks into the flophouse from which he fires the gun while Dr. King relaxes with his associates. He portrays Dr. King as a real human, warts and all, which only intensifies the importance of his mission. Likewise, Sides also tries to get inside JE Ray as he plots, plans and flees. Well-researched, fabulously written, this is one amazing book.

  • Monica

    Excellent!!

    Every time I read a history book about the late 60s it reminds me of how little America has changed in 50 years. This was really a blend of true crime and historical analysis of the last days of Martin Luther King Jr. Sides has accomplished a rather remarkable thing here: a compelling historical account and a riveting chase drama.

    So, on April 4, 1968 James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr end of story, right?! Well not so fast. There is a story behind James Earl Ray and hi

    Excellent!!

    Every time I read a history book about the late 60s it reminds me of how little America has changed in 50 years. This was really a blend of true crime and historical analysis of the last days of Martin Luther King Jr. Sides has accomplished a rather remarkable thing here: a compelling historical account and a riveting chase drama.

    So, on April 4, 1968 James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr end of story, right?! Well not so fast. There is a story behind James Earl Ray and his mindset and his upbringing and his record of crime and of escaping incarceration (he was a convict at large when he shot King). But Sides doesn't just profile Eric Galt (yes Galt from Atlas Shrugged) aka James Earl Ray. No, Sides goes into great detail as to what was going on in Martin Luther King Jr's world too.

    But we can see in the writing that Sides completely respects King and in the book elevates him and his character regarding social issues. Indeed in interviews, Sides specifically states that his respect and admiration for King were magnified after writing this book.

    But most striking (for me) in Sides book written in 2010 is how it inadvertently reflects on how little times have changed. It's almost gut wrenching the similarities that are ongoing today with the world of 1968 (and 2010 when the book was published).

    Loosely this quote could apply to the Iraq war, America's current foreign policy especially regarding Iran and Russia with our treaties (or lack thereof), America's involvement in Syria, and of course the ludicrous border wall on one border:

    Though this refers to the FBI response to the assassination of MLK, unfortunately one can imagine these very attitudes in the FBI during the Obama administration and in the matter of the 2016 election. This kind of partisanship should give pause about how Americans are being served by the FBI. In my mind because of an FBI such as this, we have a President Trump:

    And guess what? Gun control is an issue unique to America and Ramsey Clark knew about it in 1968.

    MAGA!! Replace Negroes with Mexicans or Muslims. Replace "assassin" with "people who separate children from their parents":

    Shades of today's and yesterday's culture echo. Hosea Williams sentiments are ever present:

    Sides wraps up the book with commentary on Ray but in my view could be talking about a cross section of America today.

    I highly recommend this book. You may think you know the story, but trust me, you do not. You just know how it ends. Reading Sides is illuminating, fascinating and riveting.

    Read on kindle

  • Steve

    Thinking about this book today ... on MLK's Federal Holiday ... and appreciating the fact that I read it. (It's not new, and Hampton Sides has written plenty of other (really) good stuff, including his latest book, on the Korean War,

    .) There are innumerable books about King and related topics, but, well, ... I like Sides' stuff, and he was on my mind today, so....

    * * *

    This is a terrific book, and anyone interested in the history of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Mo

    Thinking about this book today ... on MLK's Federal Holiday ... and appreciating the fact that I read it. (It's not new, and Hampton Sides has written plenty of other (really) good stuff, including his latest book, on the Korean War,

    .) There are innumerable books about King and related topics, but, well, ... I like Sides' stuff, and he was on my mind today, so....

    * * *

    This is a terrific book, and anyone interested in the history of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, J. Edgar Hoover, the history of the FBI or, quite simply, the Sixties, should put this one on their shelf. (Similarly - much as I hate to say this - anyone who enjoys crime fiction will probably enjoy this - it's that good, but there's no fiction to be found here.)

    Plenty of critics may whine that (1) most of what's here is well known and has been in the public domain for some time; and (2) Sides' account of the time, the events, and the players is so detail oriented a reader with limited attention span could drown in the minutiae. There's a kernel of truth there. But I couldn't put it down, and I recommend it without hesitation (although, if you only give an author one chance before you read more of his or her books, I'd suggest you start with

    which is a more remarkable story and - frankly - encompasses a tale far less familiar to most contemporary readers).

    In retrospect, I wish Hampton Sides was older (OK, significantly older than me), and I wish he'd been writing and publishing so that I could have read his books in high school (and even college) instead of the far-too-often disappointing and unnecessarily dry material assigned in history courses. Sides has become one of my favorite authors, quite simply because (1) he makes historical events come alive and (2) his books, quite simply, are a pleasure to read. Yes, yes, he's a creative and tireless researcher - and he deserves significant credit for that. But it's his ability to repackage historical events into compelling, captivating, entertaining, and - let's be frank here -

    that has won me (and so many other readers) over.

    I've read reviewers refer to Sides as part a unique community creating the modern era of historians - craftsmen (and craftswomen) plying a trade referred to as

    (or, for the post Tom Wolfe era, the New New Journalism) - readers find that the unofficial group includes Erik Larson, Laura Hillenbrand, Nathaniel Philbrick, and even Jon Krakauer (who has been less consistent, but merits inclusion when he's at his best) and there's something to that.... Let's throw in Daniel James Brown (for his glorious

    ) and Mitchell Zukoff (who is very good, but - to my mind - not quite as sublime as the rest). I've been impressed with all of these authors' works, and I'd love to see high schools and history teachers embrace their excellent work to open the minds and fire the imaginations of the next generation of readers.

  • Matt

    With the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) a few days ago, I felt it appropriate to read Hampton Sides’ stellar account of the lead-up to the event and the hunt for the killer. I’d heard much about it and knew that I would be in for something that would educate me, as well as provide context for this important event in more recent American history. Sides delivers a powerful narrative of the year preceding the King assassination, from multiple perspectives.

    With the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) a few days ago, I felt it appropriate to read Hampton Sides’ stellar account of the lead-up to the event and the hunt for the killer. I’d heard much about it and knew that I would be in for something that would educate me, as well as provide context for this important event in more recent American history. Sides delivers a powerful narrative of the year preceding the King assassination, from multiple perspectives. America in the late 60s was a hotbed when it came to civil rights, particularly with MLK’s marches and the push by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to bring attention to events in the Deep South. Depicting some of the SCLC’s goals, Sides provides the reader with some excellent sentiments about the danger lurking in the shadows, particularly in Alabama, Mississippi, and even into Tennessee. Meanwhile, former Alabama Governor George Wallace was in the middle of a campaign for president, seeking to solidify the southern sentiment about the need for segregation and keeping those of colour at bay. While a smaller and less impactful narrative, it does provide the reader with some insight into southern thinking from one of its most notorious political figures. Another man with his eye on MLK and hatred towards the cause was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Sides provides the reader with an insightful perspective into how little the Director felt for the SCLC’s cause and the issues that MLK kept raising. Sides repeatedly quotes sentiments Hoover made about the movement, feeling it was nothing but a collective of troublemakers. This would prove important as the story progresses. Perhaps most important of all is the narrative surrounding Eric Galt (pseudonym used by James Earl Ray), depicting his travel from Atlanta to Mexico and even out to Los Angeles, all after his 1967 prison break, explained in detail during the opening chapter. Sides weaves quite the tale as Galt sought to stay off the radar while creating his new persona. With MLK’s arrival in Memphis for another march, Galt chose a flophouse close to where the leader stayed and made final preparations to undertake a dastardly event that would rock the civil rights movement and American history. After the shots that would lead to MLK’s death, Galt fled the city, leaving a vague trail as he sought to hide from authorities of all kinds. This secondary run on the lam left Galt to flee to Toronto, the largest city in Canada. Sides explores the ongoing bait and switch techniques Galt undertook as he sought to disappear off the North American continent, especially when American officials locked in on his identity and he became the most sought-after fugitive by the FBI. The rush by the FBI to find MLK’s killer and bring him to justice contradicts its director’s earlier dismissal of the radical, though this is not lost on Sides or the attentive reader. The final race to locate and bring Galt (now identified as James Earl Ray) to justice leaves the latter portion of the book’s narrative full of twists that will captivate the reader. Even fifty years after the event, Sides injects enough drama and detail to keep any curious reader on the edge of their seats. Highly recommended to lovers of recent US history, particularly those trying late 1960s. Sides has what it takes to breathe life into an old debate that seems to have become highly relevant again.

    My interest in the MLK assassination has been percolating for a long time, as I enjoy reading about the civil rights movement in the US and 1968 as a year of action. I recently read a piece of fiction related to the MLK assassination, positing some interesting theories, which piqued my interest to find some factual accounts related to these events. Sides discusses in his introduction that much of the narrative is tied together by his extensive research, which allows for a strong narrative that captivates the reader’s attention. Using the opening portion of the book to lay the groundwork for many key actors prevalent to the larger narrative, this permits the reader to have a better handle on the political and social picture in 1968 America. The detail to which Sides goes to explore both MLK’s movement and Galt’s journey across the continent provides a vivid picture that permits the reader to almost feel present at each event. What might be most interesting of all is Sides’ great focus on the path Galt (Ray) took, leading to a time in Canada and Europe before being caught inadvertently as he sought to travel further. Sides provides such a fluid writing style that the storytelling almost seems fictitious in its detail. As one fellow reader commented to me, the story progresses in such a way that each night of reading can end with an intense cliffhanger, even with the final outcome firmly branded in history texts already. It is worth noting that Sides does not appear ready to plant ideas of conspiracy or point fingers as Ray’s involvement in a larger planned movement, but rather to gather vast amounts of the readily available documentation to create a stellar narrative that any interested reader can enjoy. With chapters of various lengths, all full of factual depictions, Sides shows himself to be a sensational historian that can entertain as well as educate. I can only hope to find more of his work to see how he tackles other events that shaped American history.

    Kudos, Mr. Sides, for your powerful piece that touched on all those aspects about which I wondered. I hope many will take the time to explore this and other pieces surrounding those most important 20th century events in America’s long history.

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  • Jeffrey Keeten

    Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was among the most gifted men of his generation. He looked presidents in the eye and demanded their attention. He was the spiritual leader of his people. He masterfully kept the Civil Rights movement from spiralling out of control by advocating nonviolence and at the same time instilling everyone with hope. In his final speech, from which I’ve quoted a snippet above, it was as if he could feel the cold hand of death on the back of his neck. He was tired. He was on the verge of trying to step down from being the leader of the movement. The burden was too heavy. The stress was consuming his life. He had a powerful voice, and his words were like poetry. He was a virtuoso of cadence. He made audiences weep with grief and relief. He made them laugh like children. He inspired them with visions of a future that was not a mirage, but fully achievable.

    James Earl Ray, a.k.a. Eric Stavo Galt, a.k.a. Harvey Lowmeyer, a.k.a. John Willard, a.k.a prisoner #416J, a.k.a. Ramon George Sneyd, a.k.a the man in 5B, was a man in search of himself. He’d escaped prison and hadn’t existed under his own name for some time. The Galt alias was probably from John Galt, the hero of his favorite novel

    .

    This famous line from the book was supposedly one of Ray’s favorite quotes. So how does assassinating King have anything to do with achieving that manifesto?

    Maybe if Ayn Rand had written something more like this:

    He was kicked out of the army for his ineptness and his inability to adapt. He took courses to be a bartender, a locksmith, and bought expensive cameras with the thought he would become a porn director. None of these professions were ever realized. He was on to the next one before the ink on the last certificate dried. He also, inexplicably, liked to dance and spent a small fortune taking classes to become better. He was a supporter of George Wallace, the segregationist from Alabama, and even spent some time working for his campaign. Every authors who has ever written about James Earl Ray will fully admit that they never reached a point where they felt like they really knew him. Even those who met him and interviewed him came away more baffled than enlightened.

    What Hampton Sides does in this book is take us back a full year before that fateful day when James Earl Ray leaned out of the bathroom window of a flop house and took away one possible destiny of the United States with one bullet. We ride along with Ray as he meanders his way through a slew of interests that never take hold. It is as if he decides on a whim that he needs to do something big, something that would make him famous, and something that would secure his place in history. He was trapped in a small bubble of right wing verbosity and believed that millions of Americans hated King. The rhetoric of Wallace can not be blamed for setting Ray on his course, but it certainly gave him a nudge, a defined purpose for an undefined life.

    He absolutely loathed King. He thought he was a fraud, a trickster, an enemy of the United States. He had him followed and wiretapped. He had hours of recordings of King being amorous with his numerous mistresses. Hoover even at one point authorized a “greatest hits” tape be sent to King’s wife, Coretta, along with a letter accusing King of being everything short of the Devil himself. It infuriated Hoover that King could do what he was doing and not face up to the consequences.

    The irony of this story is that Hoover had to launch the largest manhunt in U.S. history to find the man who assassinated his most hated enemy. The last thing that Hoover wanted was King martyred. He wanted him exposed.

    Sides put me right there in the action as if I were riding in that white Mustang with James Earl Ray. I was also sitting with King in the hotel room at the Lorraine in Memphis listening to the weariness in his voice as he tried to muster the energy for one more campaign. I felt the radiating hatred of J. Edgar Hoover. I listened to President Johnson fume about the betrayal he felt when King came out against the Vietnam War. It was a contentious time, and barely did the nation have time to grieve properly for the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. It felt like the world was descending into a chaos it could never come back from.

    This book is so well researched and the data is so well presented that I can honestly say this is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Highly Recommended!

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  • Kathleen

    James Earl Ray came from a family rich in murderers, rapists, bank robbers and conspiracy theorists. As for Ray, he was a chameleon taking on various identities as needed. Just during the period that the FBI pursued him for King’s murder he assumed the personas of Eric Starvo Gault, Paul Bridgeman, John Willard, Harvey Lowmeyer, and Ramon Sneyd. He could spin a plausible personal history in the blink of an eye. He successfully escaped the country and was on his way to Rhodesia, where he felt he

    James Earl Ray came from a family rich in murderers, rapists, bank robbers and conspiracy theorists. As for Ray, he was a chameleon taking on various identities as needed. Just during the period that the FBI pursued him for King’s murder he assumed the personas of Eric Starvo Gault, Paul Bridgeman, John Willard, Harvey Lowmeyer, and Ramon Sneyd. He could spin a plausible personal history in the blink of an eye. He successfully escaped the country and was on his way to Rhodesia, where he felt he would be treated as a hero for killing King. That was not to be. He was caught by MI5 as he was boarding a plane to Brussels.

    It is still not entirely clear why he targeted King. Yes, he was a virulent racist—but so were many others during that time. He was excellent at masterminding prison escape plans. Indeed, he had escaped from prison just before he began stalking King. But, he also wanted to be a mercenary, a bartender, and a pornographer. The racist invective of Alabama’s Governor George Wallace may have been Ray’s inspiration. But, no one really knows.

    It is not clear where Ray’s money came from as he traveled from state-to-state, country-to-country. Sides suggests that some money may have come from a fairly large bank robbery that was never solved. Honest work does not appear to have played a role.

    Sides has written a highly readable true crime account of how the FBI tracked Ray down in order to bring him to justice. We also learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the key men around him—Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson; J. Edgar Hoover who deplored King’s womanizing and Ramsey Clark, President Johnson’ Attorney General. Highly recommend.

  • Jim

    What could have been an utterly gripping account of the assassination of Martin Luther King was marred, for me, by an attention to detail that bordered on the lunatic. In this account, Martin Luther King wouldn't vist a shop on the High Street to by some gum, for example. Oh no. That would be far too general. The author would more likely write, "Dr King pushed through the swing doors of the Woolworths on 365A High Street and took out his Sears Wallet to extract one of the three five dollar bills

    What could have been an utterly gripping account of the assassination of Martin Luther King was marred, for me, by an attention to detail that bordered on the lunatic. In this account, Martin Luther King wouldn't vist a shop on the High Street to by some gum, for example. Oh no. That would be far too general. The author would more likely write, "Dr King pushed through the swing doors of the Woolworths on 365A High Street and took out his Sears Wallet to extract one of the three five dollar bills therein as his eyes scanned the confectionary before him. After six and a half seconds, he selected a packet of Wrigley's Cherry flavoured chewing gum, opened the packet and discarded the wrapper in a beige wastebasket that sat three feet and two inches from the cash register's chair. Paying the fifty nine cents, plus six cents sales tax, he chose the third stick from the packet and slowly raised it to his mouth, some of the sugar coating lodging itself under the fingernail of the third finger of his left hand." After a while, this was driving me almost to distraction. The author is good enough to paint a vivid picture without this crippling attention to detail, and I caught myself wondering if he was a borderline research eccentric (he has the name for it anyway.) If you can pare down the detail, however, this is a cracking read in lot of ways, and captures the location, people and time in a vivid way. Yes, the detail does help create this, but there's just too much of it.

  • Michael

    I was not particularly interested in the character of Martin Luther King’s killer, James Earl Ray, but I trusted Sides to make the story of his crime and manhunt interesting and a means to elucidate the history of this time. I was already batting a 1,000 with three five-star reads among his books (Blood and Thunder, Ghost Soldiers, and In the Kingdom of Ice). His genius lies in telling an historical story like a novel, conjuring up characters with personal details and putting their dramatic acti

    I was not particularly interested in the character of Martin Luther King’s killer, James Earl Ray, but I trusted Sides to make the story of his crime and manhunt interesting and a means to elucidate the history of this time. I was already batting a 1,000 with three five-star reads among his books (Blood and Thunder, Ghost Soldiers, and In the Kingdom of Ice). His genius lies in telling an historical story like a novel, conjuring up characters with personal details and putting their dramatic actions in the context of social trends in a way that elucidates aspects of the big picture about human nature.

    It’s painful how vulnerable we are on the safety of our public leaders in the face of random twists in the psyche of a rare individual. It’s almost easier to accommodate to the killers being part of a conspiracy of true believers and adherence to political causes. If a fanatic or opportunist cabal is behind the murder of our heroes, then we have more of a target for our anger. If a targeted assassination or mass killing of our people arises from insanity or hermetic obsession, it’s more like the empty “why” of a traffic accident or lightning strike. How could a nobody like Oswald have the capacity to pull off the JFK assassination and change the course of a nation? As Sides lays out for us, James Earl Ray was another such nobody. Someone who drifted from one low-paying job to another, got hooked on the faster rate of pay from robbery, and eventually got caught and served some time in prison.

    The psychohistory of Ray is not a draw for me, and nor is it for the killer of Robert Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, later that fateful, depressing year of 1968. But I did get a surprising lift out of his craftiness in escaping prison and successfully staying on the lam for over a year. If in this narrative we are going reopening the wound we got then of losing our best hope for achieving peaceful race relations and a key voice for ending the Vietnam War, let it be to some kind of mastermind. The quirky aspects of his personality that Sides shares puts a human face on the killer, which somehow makes it less of a challenge than to deal with a total maniac. That he was obsessed with self-help schemes (a book on personal “cybernetics” always at his side), ballroom dancing, and dressing well while living in hovels relieves me by suggesting evil acts do not arise from supreme devils (in sort of a “Sopranos” effect or takeaway from a Coen brothers’ production).

    The story of Martin Luther King in his last months and retrospective on his accomplishments was a valuable part of my reading experience. I didn’t have much curiosity going into this book, as I figured I knew enough about the man and how he deserved a Nobel Prize for applying Gandhi’s lessons to the institutions of segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks. But I was fascinated to learn how he related to and inspired his contentious inner circle, sustained the constant surveillance, harassment, and dirty tricks of Hoover’s FBI, and pursued in his last year the rights of all American poor in a mission beyond that of black civil rights. The reason he was visiting Memphis was for a peaceful demonstration in support of a garbage workers’ strike, involving mostly black workers in very low-paying jobs under dangerous, unhealthy conditions. It was so easy for Ray to find out about the motel where King’s party usually stayed and set up shop with a telescopic rifle in a flophouse with a line of sight on the balcony entry of King. He would have gotten away clean if he had planned his getaway better and not been forced to leave his bag with the rifle and other belongings.

    The courage of King to knowingly face the dangers of his mission is pretty awe inspiring. Sides puts it succintly:

    It was an education to go behind the scenes with his friends and family in the aftermath. Coretta’s courage and magnanimity. Ralph Abernathy trying to fill his shoes as the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Jesse Jackson presenting a false story to the media of being at King’s side at the end. Andrew Young befuddling the FBI by stating “We aren’t so much concerned with who killed Martin, as to with

    killed him.” King’s circle working together to continue the march in Memphis despite the riots that exploded all around the country (about 50 people died). Abernathy leading the “Poor People’s Campaign”, which was capped by 3,000 representatives of the poor setting up camp in the National Mall for months of protest of unjust disparities in their conditions.

    King’s funeral was an event of world significance. So much hope for America was dashed and darkened with his death. Though President Johnson had allied with King in accomplishing major civil rights legislation, he refrained from attending the funeral, which Sides surmises was because he “could not quite bring himself to honor the man who had so brazenly undermined him on Vietnam.” All who attended couldn’t help be plagued by all the extreme possibilities about those responsible for the assassination:

    Reverend King’s persona for the nation had such a moral force that his death assumed mythi overtones according Sides’ insight:

    An irony of the tale is that King’s nemesis, the FBI (Hoover pegged him as a dangerous degenerate commie), did a marvelous job resolving the case. They building on a trail out of small clues and eventually worked their way through the layers of his various identities and residences (I won’t spoil that fun, but a laundry marker from time spent in L.A. was critical at one point). He was such a loner and vagabond, it took them two months to catch up with him. By that time he had used a fake passport to travel to and hide in Portugal, Toronto, Montreal, and London, and was about to head to Rhodesia by way of Belgium when he was caught (he thought to work as a mercenary for their white supremacist regime).

    In the same way we reach to blame ISIS when someone voluntarily adopts their beliefs and commits an atrocity, we can’t help wonder how much the hate rant of Ray’s hero Governor George Wallace of Alabama can be blamed for empowering Ray to act:

    This kind of thinking has obvious parallels to the escalation of both hate speech and hate crimes in Western nations today. Ultimately, Sides comes round to a complex answer for why Ray killed King:

    (

  • Mariah Roze

    I read this book for the Diversity in All Forms! Book club. I enjoyed the read and learned so much! I suggest this book to everyone.

    "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, 1

    I read this book for the Diversity in All Forms! Book club. I enjoyed the read and learned so much! I suggest this book to everyone.

    "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."

  • Srividya

    Being a 70s child, with parents who were well read and well informed, I grew up cultivating within me a love and admiration for the 60s. Looking back today, I realise that no decade is without its share of good or bad, but back then and because of that even now, the 60s holds a very special place in my heart. With my country celebrating its third decade of freedom where religion and caste was still used for the detriment of our nation, people like Martin Luther King became ideals for both the young and the old. Not surprisingly, they still exist on the same pedestal even today, given that while there is in a sense a kind of freedom, the world still hasn’t completely thrown out discrimination on the basis of colour, caste, religion and culture. My childhood, therefore, was characterised with these great figures and their speeches being eulogised, so much so that I mourned their loss as if I had known them personally. Tucked between Nehru’s independence day speech at the stroke of midnight and Tagore’s beautiful poem ‘Where the world is without fear’, was Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.

    Being a history buff as well as one who is curious about true crimes, I was very keen to read this book, when my buddy Manju suggested it. It definitely added more appeal as it was about the murder and subsequent investigation of Martin Luther King. In

    , Hampton Sides gives us a well-researched and quite a detailed book where we not only get to learn about the crime and the investigation but we also get to know a bit about MLK and his temperament during those last few days, the killer Eric Galt, the city of Memphis and of course the political scene in the USA along with the FBI and their reservations about MLK and the subsequent intensive search for the killer and, if I may use the term, the final deliverance of justice to the man they hated.

    The book starts with James Earl Ray escaping from prison, an escape that is both ingenious as it is simple. No prison has ever been built that Ray hasn’t escaped from. We get a small glimpse of the man who will go onto make history later, if only by virtue of being an assassin. Ray’s escape is followed by a detailed description of the apathy in the southern states towards the blacks, where oppression and hatred rule the roost and injustice hits you in the face. In

    , Sides shows us the real America of the 60s. In the cacophony of voices that are screaming to pull your attention towards a great American dream being realised, you can’t help but get distracted by the dissonance created by the homeless, the war veterans, the people living in squalor, the injustice meted out towards the marginalised sections of society and more importantly the underlying tensions that are clearly visible in the South where the ‘blacks’ are held back only because of MLK and his vision of nonviolent protests as the way towards realising true equality. Sides beautifully captures how this single voice is also ebbing slowly and steadily but still can’t be done away with completely because of the respect that people have towards this man called Martin Luther King.

    Given that this book is not an autobiography of King but talks about his murder, we aren’t given a complete view of King and his history. However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t get to know King at all. In

    , Sides shows us a King who is more human than an inspirational figure, more a man than a leader; although we do get to see the other side of MLK as well, if only in fleeting. MLK, in this book, has according to Hampton Sides, reached the end of his life, at least mentally and therefore much of his speeches, interactions and inner dialogues reflect that stage where a man is quite at a peace and yet not completely peaceful with what he has achieved. As I was reading through MLK’s inner mind and his conversations with Ralph Abernathy, I felt that somewhere in his mind MLK must be chatting with the Lord saying, “Miles to go before I sleep, Lord, miles to go before I sleep”, and yet when he does sleep he does so in peace, at least from within. Hampton Sides deserves all credit for bringing this inner turmoil and then later peace within a man who has worries that only a few can even accepting as theirs.

    If you thought the book was all about MLK then you are wrong, as the book is equally about Ray or Eric Galt as he goes by initially. We are taken deep into Ray’s mind as if that might provide an answer for why he committed the crime and what made him who he was. We get a lot of answers in this book about Ray and his past as well as his present when on the run from the law but what we learn, while not surprising, is actually quite anticlimactic in nature, which is how these kind of criminals usually end up being; almost disappointing and yet so deeply relevant psychologically that one wonders whether this race of criminals will ever be vanquished completely.

    doesn’t only focus on these two individuals but also talks about the political situation in the country as well as the third main party to this crime, the FBI. From the word go, we come to know that the FBI isn’t a fan of MLK and is always looking for ways to prove him to be a fraud. They seek all kinds of approvals which the legal department (favourable to MLK) refuses to give, which creates an even deeper hatred towards the man. And yet, or maybe because of that, the FBI is intensive in its search for MLK’s killer and doesn’t give up until he is found and justice is delivered. A dichotomy indeed if you think about it, the agency that hates King goes all out to find his killer and deliver justice. Sides takes us through the entire hoopla that starts from the beginning of what we can call the last few days of King till the time his killer is caught and sent to prison for his crime and is quite detailed about the same making it really rich reading. Similarly, we get to see how the White House and the governors of the States respond to King’s style of protest as well as his entire persona and following.

    The key is in the details, is apparently what Hampton Sides believed, and what I loved the most about this book. This book is not for those who want instant answers or a fast paced thriller, although there are plenty of thrills in this book. When you start this book, you are actually transported to the 60s in America and live each and every moment that took place during the last few days/months of King’s life and after his death. You become King or Galt or the FBI while reading the book, such is the effect of the prose. King’s insecurities, his infidelities, a topic that Sides doesn’t shy away from, become your own as does Galt’s behaviour, his thrill of getting away from another prison, his life on the run before and after killing King, his impulses, his mistakes, and finally the realisation that there is nowhere to go, they all become yours. The tensions in Memphis, the pain of the garbage workers, King’s disbelief at how a seemingly quiet protest could turn violent are not mere words in the pages of a book but real incidents and this is only because of the author’s well researched and detailed writing that actually takes you back in time into the thick of things and the skin of the people as opposed to leaving you feeling merely like an onlooker. A lot of people might find this need for such detailing boring or unnecessary but I disagree as it is this detailing that brings about the rich experience that you would expect from such books that talk about true crime.

    also showcases that man isn’t all black and white but has shades of grey in him. Be it MLK or Galt or Hoover or even President Johnson, everyone is fallible and it is learning from these mistakes that makes one great, not never having made any mistakes. People might argue that certain mistakes are unpardonable, but then who are we to pass judgements? King had certain flaws that contradicted with him being a preacher. He got away with it because of his ability as well as that of his team’s to keep them separate from the cause. Whatever he might have been in personal life, he was a man who truly believed in equality and fought for it in the most principled manner and therein lies the difference. His dedication towards his cause and towards his principles of nonviolence is admirable and should be respected, for he did and died for that cause. If not for that dedication, if not for that principled living, he wouldn’t have had any enemies or people who misunderstood him and wouldn’t have been killed, that’s something we all should remember and acknowledge.

    In a world, where intolerance is the key word and where injustice still rules the roost leading to discrimination and violence on the basis of race, caste, religion, creed and culture; we need another King or at least we need to inculcate in ourselves the values that he stood for and hope that someday the world would definitely be rid of inequality and discrimination. I end this review using the same words that he used all those many years ago and which are relevant even today, albeit with some small changes

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