No matter how much — or how little — you already know about James Earl Ray’s assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., you will be spellbound by Hampton Sides’ superb new book, Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin.
Sides focuses on storytelling, fashioning a narrative that, like a nonfiction Day of the Jackal, is made no less fascinating or suspenseful by the fact that we know the outcome of events.
Some criticism has been leveled at Sides, in fact, for his novelistic approach — telling us, for instance, what he deduces a character must have been thinking at the time. However, he certainly seems to have done an incredible amount of research from primary sources. If pure scholarship might suffer a bit, the reader does not, racing through the pages as quickly as any popular summer read.
And what a story and cast of characters it is. Featured are such iconic figures as King himself, LBJ, and J. Edgar Hoover, along with a supporting cast of Jesse Jackson, Ramsey Clark, Joseph Lowery and Andrew Young. Then there is the looming, mysterious fugitive gunman lurking in the background, drifting under different names and guises, but inexorably making his way toward that fateful meeting in Memphis.
Sides opens his story with prisoner 416-J, a convicted armed robber, escaping from the Missouri State Prison. Periodically, we return to the implacable drifter as he hides out among bordellos in Mexico, joins a cult in California, and eventually returns to the South and finally decides on a sinister direction for his life.
In the meantime, Martin Luther King Jr. himself was searching for direction and trying to get back on track. After the historic victories of the civil rights movement, King was being overshadowed by black power advocates. With the fight against legal segregation all but won, King was beginning what he called “the Poor People’s Campaign.”
Sides’ portrait of a tired, fatalistic King near the end of his rope and transitioning from the fight for racial equality to a fight for economic equality -– aka democratic socialism -– will surprise some conservatives who forget where King was heading at the time of his assassination.