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Take five with Hampton Sides: On the trail of MLK assassin James Earl Ray

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2010 - Where were you on April 4, 1968?

The day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis may not be as clearly etched in the minds of Americans as the date that John F. Kennedy was killed or when terrorists struck the World Trade Center. But for Memphis native Hampton Sides, author of a new book about the killing and the man who did it, James Earl Ray, the day marked a turning point in his hometown.

He was only 6 years old, but his father worked for the law firm that represented King when he came to the city to support garbage workers who were on strike, so the tragedy struck him more strongly than it might have otherwise.

"I remember the curfew, the wail of sirens, a line of soldiers with fixed bayonets," he writes in an introductory note to readers of "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr., and the International Hunt for His Assassin." "I remember seeing tanks for the first time. Mainly, I recall the fear in the adult voices coming over the radio and television - the undertow of panic, as it seemed to everyone that our city was ripping apart."

But Sides' main focus isn't the shooting on the balcony of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel as much as it is on the odyssey before and after the killing of the small-time criminal who pulled the trigger: James Earl Ray, who had escaped from the Missouri Penitentiary and traveled around the country and into Mexico before he tracked King down and fired at him from the window of a flophouse bathroom across the courtyard.

Using the writing style of a novelist, Sides focuses on three men: King, Ray and the man who despised the civil rights leader but was ultimately responsible for capturing his killer, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. A supporting cast of King's associates, presidential aspirant George Wallace and the lawmen who painstakingly assembled the evidence and followed Ray across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe round out the story, along with the drama of President Lyndon B. Johnson's announcement less than a week earlier that he would not seek re-election and the impending Poor People's March on Washington.

But the centerpiece is the relentless Ray, also known variously as John Willard, Harvey Lowmeyer, Paul Bridgman, Ramon Sneyd and the name that authorities used to track him down: Eric Starvo Galt. His pursuit is echoed in the title, which comes from the famous blues song by legend Robert Johnson.

The story of Ray's capture - and his subsequent short-lived escape from the Tennessee prison where he was held, only to be captured again after being tracked by bloodhounds - is a taut tale, expertly told. And Ray himself is an enthralling case study, a personality so slippery that, as Sides notes, one of his lawyers said "the only time you can tell if Ray's lying is when his lips are moving."

Sides was interviewed Monday from a hotel room in Minneapolis, the stop on his book tour prior to St. Louis.

Q: What do you remember from the day King was shot? How did it affect Memphis?

Sides: I remember very little in terms of nuances, but I remember the feeling that our city was kind of ripping apart, that anything could happen. As a historian, I wanted to go back to the first moment I became aware of history happening. I didn't understand the details, and a lot of it is filtered through my subsequent understanding and stories from family members, but I wanted to go back and deconstruct the most important event in the city's history.

The whole confluence of events - the garbage workers' strike, the city's reaction to the strike, the riots that happened on Beale Street, the assassination and its aftermath - Memphis feels a stigma attached to that, just the way that Dallas felt a stigma attached to the Kennedy assassination. I grew up feeling that Memphis was complicit in King's death, that in some weird way, we were culpable. It certainly further divided an already racially divided city. It accelerated white flight to the suburbs. It made the black population in Memphis very distrustful of the white mayor and city council. It was a major setback for the confidence of the city and progressivism.

There certainly were some beautiful things that came out of it. The Memphis Search for Meaning Committee formed and tried to figure out what happened and why it happened and what could be done to fix the damage. The Lorraine Motel, which for years sat in disarray and in danger of being torn down, became the National Civil Rights Museum, an enormously attractive tourist attraction and shrine. I went there for Obama's inaugural address, where they had set up jumbo screens and loudspeakers, and hundreds of people, white and black, were there. It was a little strange, but it was also beautiful.

Q:You say that Ray was "screwed up in an absolutely fascinating way." Talk about his personality and his approach to life.

Sides: He was a drifter. He moved around a whole lot. But St. Louis was one of his homes that he moved in and out of. He had some family there. John Larry Ray had a bar on Arsenal Street in St. Louis, and he had other family ties. There seems to be some belief that if you're an assassin, you have to have three names, but no one called him James Earl Ray. He was Jimmy.

He had his antennae quivering with ideas that were coming in from pop culture. He was reading all these popular self-help books, dabbling in hypnosis, in plastic surgery. He was always reading the papers or listening to his transistor radio or watching television. He was a news junkie. He was desperately trying to connect with something, to find some sort of happiness. I think he knew he was miserable, that he was screwed up. He was struggling to find something to connect with.

What was fascinating was such a collective range of things he was into - dance lessons, bartending school, the Wallace campaign, thinking about emigrating to Rhodesia.

Q: How was the atmosphere of political discourse in 1968 similar to what we have today? Did it contribute to Ray's drive to kill King?

Sides: The political environment that existed in 1968 created an environment where a person like Ray, a lost soul but also ambitious, could think he could pick up a rifle and change history and a segment of the population would smile on him and approve.

George Wallace wasn't telling his followers to go out and kill Martin Luther King, but racist demagogues were putting out a lot of poison, and it was only a matter of time before people would take it literally. We didn't have the Internet back then, but if they had had it, Ray would have been on it, finding fellow travelers. We have an echo chamber of hate out there now, with a whole lot of chatter about shooting cops and provoking wars with the federal government. The culture of hate is alive and well, unfortunately.

Q: One of the most interesting parts of the book is the role of J. Edgar Hoover, who despised King and kept a dossier on him, yet was charged with the responsibility of capturing the man who gunned him down.

Sides: Just in narrative terms, it was such a reversal, to go from Hoover trying to do everything within his power to ruin King, then here he is leading the manhunt to find King's killer. I do think, paradoxically, that his hatred of King intensified the manhunt.

Nothing was more important to Hoover than the reputation of the FBI, and the reputation of the FBI was what was at stake. Not only that, but he was getting enormous pressure from LBJ and from Ramsey Clark, the attorney general, as well as from the nation. Some 150 riots had been going on. If he was inclined to drag his feet at first, that very quickly changed. He was clearly doing everything he could, expending every resource to find King's killer.

Maybe Hoover feared that people would say he did the assassination, and he felt even more of a sense of desperation because of this. I have no doubt that once they embarked on the job they were supposed to be doing, solving a crime, the FBI turned over every stone. The sheer amount of shoe leather and man hours involved showed what a relentless hunt it was, involving not only the FBI but the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Portuguese National Police and finally Scotland Yard.

Q: You quote historian Shelby Foote as saying he had "employed the novelist's methods without his license," and you certainly take full advantage of that technique here. The book reads like a first-class thriller, even for people who know what the ending will be.

Sides: I was definitely influenced by that generation of writers who called themselves the new journalists. I read and digested Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer and Truman Capote - literary journalists, literary historians, literary non-fiction writers, whatever you call that school. They were trying to shape up the conventions of non-fiction writing by injecting a lot of tools and techniques from fiction.

I've tried to do that, too, whether consciously or unconsciously. I was very careful about how to break off chapters, creating foreshadowing and suspense, using short chapters, having multiple narratives going at the same time, showing where they intersect and cross paths. When you have documents to work with, some dialogue and setting, you can develop some characters so they aren't just some parade of names on the page.

It was kind of like a true crime novel in many ways, aided by the fact that once you get into the manhunt, it really is like a police procedural. That's what the story was like, these guys fanning out over the country, where one lead led to another led to another led to another led to another. It was a fascinating puzzle they had to solve.

It was freeing to write that way after I made one very important decision: I decided that Ray had done it. I went into this with an open mind. I thought Ray was part of a big conspiracy, because that was what I had always heard in Memphis. Then I realized the evidence was incontrovertible that he did it alone. So I decided not to go into the conspiracy theories, not look under every rock for every possibility. I decided to focus on Ray: Who was he? What were his habits? What were all these identified he inhabited? That was the most freeing decision I made.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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