April 4, 1968 – Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight to Bring His Killer to Justice

In Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides has written a history book that reads like a suspense/thriller novel. His story follows the assassination of Martin Luther King by James Earl Ray. More than four decades after the event, Sides brings to life the characters involved and the era in which it occurred. He meticulously researched many of the minutia known about both the assassin and his victim during the period immediately preceding the killing and the three months thereafter, the time it took the FBI and numerous other law enforcement agencies to locate and arrest the killer.

James Earl Ray was a loner, a loser, and an extreme racist who had spent much of his adult life in prison. He was also remarkably resourceful, streetwise, and canny. Moreover, he seemed preternaturally inconspicuous and unobtrusive. The narrative begins in spring of 1967 with Prisoner #00416-J (as he was then characterized) serving a term for armed robbery in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, a maximum-security facility. He accumulated some cash through trading in drugs and amphetamines, which were plentiful in the prison. He escaped by hiding scrunched up under and among some freshly baked loaves of bread that the prison bakery had sent out for delivery to the ostensibly trustworthy prisoners working outside the prison walls. He was resourceful enough to escape to Mexico without leaving a trace. He returned to the United States in November 1967, taking a large cache of marijuana, assumed the alias of Eric S. Galt, and blended into an underworld of cheap hotel and rooming houses. He was someone no one ever noticed.

Martin Luther King was internationally famous for his work in breaking down the legal barriers of Jim Crow legislation in the South through non-violent protest. King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and had led a protest march to Washington where he delivered his “I have a dream” speech, a paean to racial justice. But by late autumn 1967, his career was decidedly on a downward trend. Black leaders impatient with the slow pace of reform, like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, had captured the imagination of many disaffected black citizens, and had incited numerous urban riots. Moreover King’s well-defined goal of abolishing discriminatory legislation and government regulation had been achieved, at least theoretically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been enacted, negating most of Jim Crow legislation through federal preemption.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X

With the passage of these laws, King then turned his energy to ameliorating the lot of the poor of all races, and not just that of poor blacks. That decision did not sit well with all his entourage. Nevertheless, King turned toward organizing another march on Washington to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, this one with the laudable goal of eradicating poverty, but with little idea of how that could be accomplished and with no specific proposals toward achieving the goal.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at Riverside Church, NYC, April 4, 1967

By this time, King was considered to be a thorn in the side of President Lyndon Johnson, but was hated by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover thought King was a communist, and was particularly concerned about King’s proposed mass gathering of poor people in a tent city in the Capitol. The FBI conducted a campaign of spying on King. Although it uncovered some of King’s sexual escapades and leaked them to the press (not to mention, to his wife Coretta), nothing seemed to come of the disclosures, which the press self-censored. It was clearly a different era in journalism.

On February 1, 1968, a horrible accident causing the grizzly death of two black men working as garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in King’s assassination. The two men were seeking shelter from some rain when the garbage truck on which they were working malfunctioned, caught both of them in its maw, pulled them into its grinding mechanism, and literally crushed them both. Their deaths triggered the formation of a labor union by the all-black garbage-collecting work force and an illegal strike (municipal workers were not permitted to unionize or to strike) to protest low wages and dangerous working conditions.

Memphis Garbage Strike, 1968

The city government resisted the strike vigorously, if legalistically. Substitute workers were hired, but not enough to prevent the garbage from accumulating throughout the city. The strike attracted the attention of national labor and civil rights leaders, including James Lawson, a friend of MLK. Lawson persuaded King to lead a march in Memphis. The march was organized independently of King’s organization. Without King’s leadership and discipline over young hot heads, however, the march turned into a riot of looting and vandalism. King was discredited and very embarrassed. King’s second trip to Memphis was much more successful than the first, since he and his organization were able to arrange a dignified non-violent protest march.

Sides’ narrative intersperses Galt/Ray’s peregrinations with King’s preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign. Galt became obsessed with the possibility of killing King, following his travels closely through the press. Galt learned King would return to Memphis and that he would be staying at the Lorraine Motel, a black-owned enterprise. Galt rented a room in a cheap boarding house that provided him a second story view of the Lorraine’s balcony and courtyard. He purchased a high power hunting rifle, a powerful optical scope, and soft-tipped ammunition. He knew little about guns, but said he needed a deadly weapon because he would be hunting large game.

King was basking in the aura of a successful march and standing on his balcony waiting for others in his entourage to join him for dinner. Galt fire one shot, hitting King in the jaw. The soft-tipped bullet then careened through his throat and into his shoulder. King died shortly thereafter in a hospital operating room.

Hotel Lorraine, immediately after the shooting

Several anecdotes add poignancy to the aftermath of the assassination. King had spent his last night with Georgia Davis, one of his mistresses. She attempted to get into the ambulance to accompany King to the hospital, but Andrew Young avoided some bad press by touching her shoulder and saying, “Georgia, I don’t think you want to do that.” Jesse Jackson smeared his shirt with King’s blood and tried to claim he was the last person to speak to King. Others in King’s immediate circle strongly admonished him for grandstanding.

April 3, 1968: Balcony of Hotel Lorraine, left to right: Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, MLK, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy

King’s closest friends and successor, Ralph Abernathy, tried to carry on his legacy by completing the Poor People’s Campaign, which proved to be a disaster without King. Tens of thousands of people erected a tent city on the National Mall, but milled aimlessly for weeks, accomplishing little but incurring the ire of the national government and alienating many white former sympathizers.

The final one-fifth of the book covers Galt’s escape, his travel to Canada, England, Portugal, and back to England, where he was finally captured after the most exhaustive manhunt in history. He had sought to get to South Africa, where he thought the apartheid government might welcome him as a hero, or at least not extradite him.

The author shows how the FBI changed over night from trying to discredit King to trying to catch his killer. Much of the credit must go to Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who may have hated Hoover as much as Hoover hated King. It was only through extremely arduous and thorough police work that Galt was identified as James Earl Ray and located at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Atty. Gen. Ramsay Clark with President Lyndon Johnson

Evaluation: The book is fast paced, well-written, very detailed, and thoroughly researched. It manages to describe events without much speculation, basing its assertions on the testimony of the participants, particularly of the killer. The description of the police-FBI investigation reads like a crime thriller. Other reviewers have observed that it contains little that had not been written before, but it provides a sometimes heart-pounding refresher for people like me who have forgotten many of the details of forty years ago.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Doubleday, 2010

Note: Sides is also the author of, inter alia, Blood and Thunder, an exciting history of the exploration of the American West and the story of Kit Carson.

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