Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Assassin James Earl Ray's Road to Memphis

As reviewed by the New York Times,"Tracing King’s Killer in a World of Shadow," by Janet Maslin, on 21 April 2010 -- In writing “Hellhound on His Trail,” the hands-on historian Hampton Sides (“Ghost Soldiers,” “Blood and Thunder”) has undertaken a hugely risky proposition. He has pieced together a viscerally dramatic account of the last days of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and intercut Dr. King’s story with the maneuverings of James Earl Ray, the man tried and convicted as his assassin. The potential for exploitation is immense, especially in light of Mr. Sides’s most visible literary influence. Here is the King assassination as imagined not only in the black and white of the civil rights movement’s era but in James Ellroy’s noir.

When Mr. Ellroy writes of sleaze, conspiracy, corruption and murder (as he frequently has, most famously in “L.A. Confidential,” “My Dark Places” and “The Cold Six Thousand”), he revels in this stuff. Mr. Sides’s objectives are entirely different, even if Ray’s tastes for strip joints, Brylcreem, aliases, guns and cheap motels are inevitably part of the story. Mr. Sides writes in forceful, dignified, obscenity-free language and creates the momentum of a tightly constructed nonfiction film. His book, which takes its title from the Robert Johnson blues song, arrives in conjunction with “Roads to Memphis,” a documentary to be broadcast on PBS May 3.

Not many documentaries have the lean, unsparing urgency that can be found in Mr. Sides’s streamlined version. Remarkably, he has embroidered the facts without losing a sense of veracity. He augments the truth, but he does it responsibly. He skirts certain issues, like the question of whether or not Ray acted alone, without losing his sharp focus. And he brings to life the story of Dr. King’s last days without bogging it down in too many small particulars. Both Dr. King and Ray come to life in these remarkable pages, generating great suspense without surprise, thanks to readers’ terrible foreknowledge of what will happen when these two cross paths.

In order to achieve such verisimilitude, Mr. Sides has drawn on a wide spectrum of sources. Some, like David Halberstam, are unimpeachable. Others, like the members of Dr. King’s inner circle who wrote memoirs about the assassination, are more self-conscious in their efforts to shape history. And some have been all but ignored in mainstream accounts of the assassination. In the furor that surrounded the shooting and focused all attention on the event itself, some ancillary figures were either hidden or overlooked.

But Mr. Sides draws on the recollections of Georgia Davis, the Kentucky state senator and Dr. King’s illicit companion, who says she was with him on the last night of his life. He includes the fact that Loree Bailey, one of the white owners of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was shot, collapsed and died in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. He reminds readers of the terrible grief endured by the King family, not only at this moment but six years later when Alberta King, Dr. King’s mother, was gunned down while playing a church organ. As for Ray’s own version of events, Mr. Sides takes even that into account. “As they say, a busted watch tells the truth twice a day,” he writes.

Mostly “Hellhound on His Trail” is a tight two-man story, cutting back and forth between Dr. King and a shady figure who in 1968 was calling himself Eric Starvo Galt. (The last name perhaps comes from John Galt, the heroic figure in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” Mr. Sides says he also thinks that the middle name comes from a James Bond character.)

 A news reporter stands in the room rented by the assassin who shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis, Tenn., April 5, 1968. The civil rights leader was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when he was killed by a rifle bullet on April 4, 1968. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the killing and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in prison in 1998. (source: The Salt Lake Tribune, AP Photo)

Mr. Sides begins by describing Galt’s 1967 escape from prison in Jefferson City, Mo.; he managed to hide inside a box filled with loaves of prison-baked bread. Beyond writing that “the kitchen was redolent with the tang of yeast,” Mr. Sides goes mercifully easy on the made-up particulars, preferring to take a cool, clinical view of Galt and his subsequent travels. Having thus dodged the remaining 18 years of his armed robbery sentence, he wandered to Mexico, where he typically managed to make himself barely noticeable. He was remembered as “a fidgety gringo who wore shades and mumbled when he spoke.”

Galt drifted to Los Angeles and graduated from bartending school. He took a correspondence course in locksmithing and worked as a volunteer for the presidential campaign of George Wallace, whose incendiary speeches and claims that a “whole heap of folks in this country feel the same way I do” are enough to give the hate speech in “Hellhound on His Trail” a startlingly contemporary aspect. Then the book, without presuming to explain Galt’s inner workings, follows him east toward Memphis, where he knew Dr. King could be found.

“On this night, the Leader was full of charity,” Mr. Sides writes, about a generous gesture made by Dr. King to the Rev. Jesse Jackson moments before the shooting. “He zestfully tugged at his coat lapels, as was his habit when he felt confident and ready for the world. He was clean shaven, sweet smelling and dressed to the nines. He looked at Jackson and flashed a broad smile.” And he was within the gun sights of Galt, who had positioned himself at a window above in the filthy communal bathtub of a rooming house behind the Lorraine Motel.

“Hey, that sounded like a shot,” one of the rooming house’s denizens said soon afterward. “It was,” Galt replied as he hastily escaped, according to the F.B.I.’s subsequent investigation.

“Hellhound on his Trail” makes spellbinding use of such blunt simplicity. And it winds up sounding lifelike and authoritative if not comprehensive. Who sent Ray on this mission? Mr. Sides doesn’t know. How did Mr. Jackson wind up inaccurately telling television reporters that he was the last person to whom Dr. King spoke? Mr. Sides addresses this question but doesn’t harp on it. He doesn’t have to.

Mr. Sides was a 6-year-old in Memphis when Dr. King was shot. His main objective in this bold, dynamic, unusually vivid book is to bring an adult’s perspective to events that he could neither fathom nor forget.  (source: New York Times)

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