July 11, 2010 § 2 Comments

1968 was a hellish year on many counts for our nation.  It was the year that Bobby Kennedy was gunned down at a primary night victory celebration in California.  The Vietnam War continued its grip on the nation and claimed Lyndon Johnson’s presidential career among its 50,000-plus casualties.  The Democratic convention in Chicago was beset by violent demonstrations and police reaction that were broadcast live on television to the shock of millions.  The heady “Prague Spring” came to a stunning and abrupt end when Soviet tanks rumbled into Czechoslovakia and crushed the fresh democracy that had sprung up, raising new fears of an east-west confrontation and adding to the chilly pall that the cold war had cast over our lives for more than twenty years.

But no event in the tumult of 1968 had more powerful repercussions than the assasination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, in Memphis. 

Hampton Sides’ book, HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL is the meticulously researched and spellbinding retelling of how the drifter James Earl Ray stalked King, planned the murder, and carried it out, and the story of how the FBI, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Scotland Yard painstakingly unravelled the knot of aliases and false trails that Ray threw in their path until his arrest at a London airport two months after the assasination. 

There is nothing really new here:  no startling bombshell revelation of a conspiracy that has long been whispered about; no new eyewitness or piece of hitherto undiscovered shard of evidence; no new insight into the enigmatic Ray.

What is here in this book, and what makes it such a compelling read is how Sides lays it out like a detective novel, unfolding developments and clues in tantalizing morsels that whet the reader’s appetite and keep the pages turning for more.  Sides draws on the many reams of investigative material, research, scholarly papers and personal interviews that rose out of this dark event and applies his considerable writing skill to craft a narrative that is hard to put down.

The characters are all here in bold relief:  King himself, struggling to re-establish himself and non-violence as pre-eminent in the civil rights movement, against the rising tide of calls to racial violence; Ray, the murderous escaped con who swore he would kill the man he considered the leader of the race he hated; Ralph David Abernathy, King’s loyal friend and aide, but ultimately unequal to the task of being his successor; Coretta, the stoic widow; J. Edgar Hoover, who hated King and resisted taking over the murder investigation until he was ordered to do so by US Attorney General Ramsey Clark; Jesse Jackson, who would lie to try to claim the mantle of King’s successor; the FBI agents who undertook a seemingly impossible task and did a remarkable job of tracking down the killer in the largest manhunt in history; and the cast of casual bystanders who were caught up in the events.  And, yes, there are some tawdry details about King’s personal life; those are an undeniable part of the true story.    

Hampton Sides is a native Memphian with a good feel for the south.  Despite the fact that he was only six years old when King was murdered, Sides is able to paint the landscape of racism and insensitivity to poverty that permeated the region in those days without resorting to the stereotypes and generalizations on which writers unfamiliar with southern folkways of the 1960’s so often fall back.  His depiction of the south of 1968 is factual and stark.  We thought we had come so far back then, but in retrospect some of the images are painful.  There were Cal Alley’s racist and patronizing cartoons that I recall reading in the Memphis Commercial Appeal in those days.  There is the depiction of the regal Cotton Carnival and its opulence set against the desparate poverty of the Memphis sanitation workers.  There is the fact that racist groups raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Ray’s defense and hailed him as a hero, a sobering reminder of a seamy underside of American society. 

Reading this book will bring into focus how much America and the south have changed in 42 years.  African-Americans are more incorporated into the mainstream now, in jobs, neighborhoods, schools and elected positions that were unimaginable in 1968.  African-Americans are a growing segment of the middle class.  It is not uncommon to see whites and blacks socializing together, something so innocuous today that would have raised eyebrows back then.  Racial reconciliation is not an accomplished fact, but we have made a start thanks to the life and sacrifice of a man whose life was cut short by the very violence he repudiated.

The National Civil Rights Museum

January 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

We visited the National Civil Rights Museum the weekend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday. The museum is in downtown Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

The museum incorporates the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was lodging, and the boarding house across the street, from which the killer fired the fatal shot.IMG_2726

Dr. King had come to Memphis in support of a strike by Memphis garbage workers for better pay. He and his cohort, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, checked in at the Lorraine in adjoining rooms. The motel was their customary lodging whenever they were in the city. They stayed at the Lorraine so frequently that motel staff and the guests jokingly referred to their rooms as the “King-Abernathy Suite.” Dr. King was staying in Room 306. At around 6:00, p.m., he was standing on the second-floor balcony, chatting about plans for supper with some friends in the parking lot below, when the rifle shot took his life.IMG_2724

People were not as security conscious in 1968 as they are now. Police were posted nearby, but they were there primarily to keep away anyone who approached on foot or by automobile. No one gave any thought to securing the shabby boarding house across the street. The killer, James Earl Ray, shot Dr. King using a .30-06 rifle with scope. He shot from the small, upper-right window in the building with the white door, about 100 yards from his target.IMG_2734

Ray had to stand in a bathtub in his boarding house bathroom, resting his rifle on a widow sill, to fire at his target. You can see the motel through the window. For a rifleman with a scope, the shot was not challenging.IMG_2729

Much of the museum is closed now for refurbishing, so most of the exhibits one sees now focus on Dr. King’s assassination. When the museum is fully open, however, it offers exhibits interpreting the entire scope of the civil rights movement. Visitors during the renovation are able to access the balcony, which includes a look into Dr. King’s room as it was the evening of the assassination.IMG_2735

Exhibits … The first picture below depicts the exhibit showing the rifle used by the murderer, his jacket, a box of ammunition, and some other items discovered in the investigation that linked him to the crime.IMG_2730

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The story of Ray’s stalking and murder of Dr. King, and his subsequent international pursuit and arrest by the FBI, are captured in riveting detail in Hampton Sides’ book, Hellhound on his Trail, which I posted about here.IMG_2723

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