Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides

In November 2008, as then President-elect Barack Obama recited his acceptance speech before a massive audience in Chicago’s Grant Park, the television cameras scanned the crowd, stopping upon a visibly moved, openly weeping Jesse Jackson. Jackson, once a close aide of Martin Luther King Jr., was at the Lorraine Motel the night he was assassinated. In fact, he made the call to King’s wife, Coretta, to deliver the news.

What must that moment in 2008 have meant to him? We can imagine it had something to do with King’s dream: that his four children would “one day live in a nation where they [would] not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” In Hampton Sides’ spellbinding narrative Hellhound on His Trail, we revisit the before-and-after of that fateful evening on April 4, 1968, and are given a painstakingly complete portrait of both King and his assassin James Earl Ray.

Today our country honors King’s birth, his life, and his contributions. We have come a long way in the forty years since his death, and yet we still have miles to go. It is necessary, then, to take a look back at the events that surrounded his death — the swirl of anger, resentment, and unrest that overtook the country during the late 1960s — to better understand why a man fighting for peace and humanity met such a grisly end.

With a gripping pace that’s utterly absorbing, Sides expertly weaves together the ancillary events that played upon each other to ultimately make history. Sides has done his homework to assiduous degree. Every character and location is fully realized. The level of detail is visceral; we are transported. The book begins with the prison break of inmate 416-J and, despite a known outcome, the suspense never wavers.

We trace the steps of a man named Eric S. Galt, described as “an oddity: a null set of stewing ambition, wiry and watchful, seemingly paranoid — and emphatically alone.” His commitment to Alabama governor and presidential-hopeful George Wallace’s “neo-Confederate” platform propels his actions as he travels from Los Angeles to Memphis. We are given background on the political situation brewing — King’s stature waning, his Poor People’s Campaign facing backlash, as well as the “cognitive dissonance” between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who disliked King, and attorney general Ramsey Clark, who admired him. We also become privy to King’s own internal world. We are shown the man, rather than the icon: his fidelity issues, his physical fatigue, and his perpetual willingness to give “just one little speech.”

Sides presents a timeline of April 4 down to the minute: At 6:01 PM the assailant “wrapped his index finger around the cool metal trigger”; at 6:02 he was on the run. The police dispatcher broadcast a description of the shooter at 6:10. King entered the emergency room at 6:15. At 6:20 Jesse Jackson called Coretta. At 7:05 King was pronounced dead. What follows from there is “a manhunt that would become the largest in American history,” a sixty-five-day search for the guest in room 5B. With a nation enraptured and forensic evidence in tow, the FBI investigates lead after lead, alias after alias until, at last, they capture their man.

Skillfully and respectfully told by Sides, this story cannot be undone. But neither can King’s legacy.

-JF, 2012

Citation: Sides, Hampton. Hellhound on His Trail. New York, Anchor, 2011. Print.

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