Looking back at the late 1960s through the prism of “Hair” and the Beatles’ White Album, it seems like an appealing era. It was. But it was also frightening and ugly. Hampton Sides conjures the full paranoia in “Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin.”
Sides is a crack research artist with a feel for both halves of the American chronicle, the grandeur and the violence. In his last book, “Blood and Thunder” -- a thrilling history of the conquest of the West -- he confronted a national horror, the subjugation of the Navajos, without tarring the heroism of the settlers. It was a feat of narrative subtlety.
The period he’s writing about this time is altogether more depressing. Cities burned. Vietnam festered, driving an ugly wedge between King and his former ally, President Lyndon B. Johnson.
King’s murder, by a lowlife George Wallace fanatic named James Earl Ray, hastened the denouement (Sides’s word) of the Civil Rights movement. It’s easy to forget the level of racism that was still flourishing then. When FBI agents went to question Ray’s brother, his response was, “What’s all the excitement about? He only killed a nigger.”
Sides structures the book around the contrasting personalities of King (ebullient, sorrowful) and Ray (barely there).King wasn’t feeling triumphant at the end of his life. He was weary and distraught over the direction of his movement. American blacks had grown increasingly angry and impatient, and violence simmered everywhere.
Cities on Fire
Soon after his murder, Sides reports, fires broke out in about 150 American cities, “resulting in 40 deaths, thousands of injuries, and some 21,000 arrests.”
President Johnson himself said, in a moment of despair, “If I were a kid in Harlem, I know what I’d be thinking. I’d be thinking that whites had declared open season on my people -- that they’re going to pick us off one by one unless I get a gun and pick them off first.”
As for the killer, the author stays right next to him from April 23, 1967, the day he escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary, where he was serving time for armed robbery, to June 8, 1968, when he was seized at Heathrow Airport in London nine weeks after King’s assassination.
Sides also keeps meticulous track of those few possessions, both significant (the murder weapon, a Remington Gamemaster 760 .30-06-caliber rifle) and mundane (a pair of boxer shorts with a telltale laundry tag), that enabled J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to establish Ray’s identity and track him down. (He very nearly made it to Rhodesia, where it would have been impossible to extradite him.)
“All the advances the young Hoover had pushed for during the bureau’s infancy -- centralized fingerprint analysis, a state-of-the-art crime lab, a ballistics unit, a continental force of agents working in lockstep -- had come fully into play in capturing Ray,” Sides explains.
It’s a good thing the bureau succeeded, because it had disgraced itself with its campaign of dirty tricks against King. The only man Hoover loathed as much was Bobby Kennedy, who would be shot on June 6 -- two days before Ray’s arrest.
Since “Hellhound on His Trail” is a tale of clear good and evil, it lacks the moral complexity of “Blood and Thunder.” That makes it a somewhat lesser book. But it’s still a page turner, and something more: It brings the disquiet of an era fully alive.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at email@example.com.