You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Hellhound on his Trail

Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin is a detailed historical account of King's last days and James Earl Ray's life in the months leading up to his assassination of King. Hampton Sides researched many accounts of King, and pulled together the available facts about Ray's travels. The result is a chilling account of a racist determined to strike at a famous black leader.

Ray escaped from the state penitentiary in Jefferson City Missouri and made his way to Puerto Vallarta Mexico. He was a small time crook and drug dealer, running through the cash he had accumulated in prison. He leaves Mexico and goes to Los Angeles where he continues drinking, doing drugs, and visiting prostitutes. Ray was a loner and mostly kept to himself. The few people who remembered him could only vaguely recall his appearance; he looked like an nondescript average business man. He was good at keeping a low profile. He knew where to find the flophouses and cheap hotels in any city.

Meanwhile, King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference travel to Memphis to show solidarity with the garbage workers strikers. When the march turns violent, King and the others decide that they must return to Memphis for a peaceful march. King was also pushing for Poor People's March in Washington, D.C. in the summer, to bring attention to people of all colors in poverty. Yet King was troubled. He was aware of threats on his life, and felt like he was fated to meet a violent end.

I was struck by the contrast between King's earnest push for peace and justice, and Ray's pure hatred. While King devoted his life to bringing people together, Ray's life was all about living for himself day to day, enjoying women, and finding the next scam. King was a leader with many people looking up to him. Ray was a nobody with no meaningful relationships. Everybody Ray met barely knew him, and he was out of town within months.

Ray traveled to Atlanta to try to get close enough to King to kill him. But he was stymied until he read that King would be returning to Memphis for another march. His one shot at King was the result of a snap decision soon after he checked into the boarding house. Another snap decision would be the crucial evidence linking him to the crime: he dumped the box with the rifle so as not to be conspicuous while walking to his car.

The rifle and a witness account of Ray's car led to many other clues. It was interesting to read about the FBI's vast search through Ray's strange past. The FBI, which had been monitoring King and running a smear campaign against him, spared no effort to find the assassin. Ray made his way to Canada and then England, where the New Scotland Yard finally apprehended him as he tried to make his way to the racist African state of Rhodesia. Paradoxically, the FBI's bad relationship with King led to them being driven to find his assassin so that they would be above suspicion for the crime. Finding Ray was not easy, for he was very crafty.

The story unfolds dramatically as the two men march toward destiny. Sides brings a great amount of detail to the events, from the Southern traditions of Memphis to the particulars of Ray's lifestyle. He really captures the turbulent times. King's death led to riots across the country, and soon Robert Kennedy would be killed. Yet the SCLC returned to Memphis to lead a peaceful march. A silent march, King's wife Coretta was one of the leaders. The story is vast in its scope and filled with great detail, a truly human story. A

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