For a moment, there were just two men in Memphis. One had a rifle, and one did not, and that made all the difference.
More than four decades later, you might assume that there’s little more to say about either of these men. One was a hero, whose life has been chronicled again and again. The other was a weird and pathetic racist.
But as the remarkable new history Hellhound on His Trail shows, we can learn plenty by spending a few weeks in 1968 with Martin Luther King Jr., the man who shot him to death, and the investigators who tried to find a surprisingly savvy assassin.
The book is a window on the passions and contradictions of an era – the hatred stirred by the civil rights movements, the battle lines within a single presidential administration, and a martyr who died just as his own flame seemed to be flickering amid dissension and disappointment.
Contrary to what we may remember, the Rev. King was not at the height of his powers in the spring of 1968. The leaders of his movement were divided and King’s critics were swooping in to glory in his decline.
He was a small-time criminal who was already on the run after escaping from a notorious Missouri prison in a bread truck. The prison seemed to barely know he was there and hardly noticed that he’d left. He continued to fail to make an impression – or made a bad one – as he traveled across the US and Mexico.
Eventually, he found his way to Tennessee as King arrived to stand up for striking garbage workers.
Thanks to the skills of historian and author Hampton Sides, readers will feel as if they are standing on the ledge at the Lorraine Motel with King (where his mistress was waiting in a room just doors away) and in the cramped, filthy bathroom of a nearby flophouse with Ray and his rifle.
Readers also step into the shoes of the two garbagemen whose tragic fates inspired the strike, the liberal US attorney general stuck with a vindictive FBI director, and the widow who maintained an otherworldly dignity and a “sad, wise smile.”
(Like another famous widow left bereft a few years earlier, Coretta Scott King is not allowed to break down or fall apart.)
Sides treats the players in his story fairness and dignity, even when they may not deserve it.
There’s the city of Memphis, “rich and gothic and weird,” divided by race and class and white obliviousness. There’s Jesse Jackson, forever wounding his reputation by seeming to glamorize his role in the moments after the shooting. And there’s the middle-aged black woman from Tennessee, a trailblazing state senator who was King’s mistress and tried to accompany him to the hospital in his final minutes.
In one of the book’s most moving moments, Andrew Young gently tells her to stay out of the ambulance, protecting King’s reputation (and hers) from cameras and prying eyes.
History, of course, has pockmarked King, revealing the weaknesses in a man who seemed so tightly controlled.
There is no reverse side to Ray, no hidden generosity or grace. He was just what he seemed to be, a mean man driven by hatred, representing the anger of a simmering minority of Americans. While he lived for another 30 years, this odd man – “stranger than anyone could have imagined” – never sought or found redemption, although he had one more surprise up his sleeve.
But there is redemption to be found in this story, and in a most unexpected place. Led by a director fossilized in some cruel earlier era, the FBI hardly seemed the right agency to try to find King’s assassin. J. Edgar Hoover was an embittered enemy of King and did all he could to bring the leader down.
Still, the FBI, with an assist from law enforcement in at least five countries, finally found their man. The agency that devoted itself to destroying King managed to find honor by reversing course.
“Hellhound,” a page-turner, is full of details but never becomes exhausting. Its story is told so effectively and efficiently that readers will want to head back in time and pluck the bullet out of the air on that April evening, when the best and worst of America met in Memphis.
Randy Dotinga frequently reviews history books for the Monitor.