Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides

I picked up this book in an airport bookstore shortly after its hardcover release and I immediately connected with it. I’m not sure why because my only connection to the assassination of MLK is what I learned back in American History. However, I lived in Memphis in the 90s and so my life eventually mingled with facts or theories as one usually does when you live in a place put on the map because of so many events that changed the country. I never visited the Lorraine Motel/Civil Rights Museum while I lived there, but this book made me want to make a trip back there.  I eventually bought the audio version, read by the author, for my IPod in August of last year and just finished it this past Sunday.

What I liked about this book is how Hampton Sides never calls James Earl Ray by his real name until the third part of the book after the FBI discovers his true identity. Instead, he establishes the many aliases that Ray used after he escaped from Jefferson City, and only calls him by those names as he used them from the time of his escape, till when he shot King, then traveled to Canada, and eventually overseas when he was caught.

Sides also establishes many of the conspiracy theories along the way, but while keeping a factual POV, he leaves it up to the reader to unravel the clues which makes this a great thriller of sorts. For example, Ray escaped prison by hiding under a false bottom of a corn bin in a delivery truck that was filled with corn at the time. If Ray escaped alone, how did he get into the bin and under the false bottom, and also manage to pour corn on top of the false bottom so that the bin appeared full? We also don’t get the clear distinction that Ray was actually a racist or stalking King until Sides offers up these theories after King is already dead. And we never hear these theories from Ray himself.

The author, Hampton Sides, did an amazing job with the read too, even making it interesting by attempting to mimic the dialect of several of the characters.  From a stern MLK to a southern drawl of Ray, it really helped me get into the story as I was listening.

Ray also appears to be very intelligent, although many witnesses state that he wasn’t. The reader also may start to side with the witnesses when we learn of the mistakes and blunders Ray made which eventually led to his capture. For instance, while in captivity Ray denied knowing who James Earl Ray was but asked an investigator to contact his brother for him. When the investigator asked for his brother’s name, James gave him the last name of Ray.

For someone like me who has been pretty blind to this part of our history, with no real theories of my own or personal research into the many theories surrounding the case, I was shocked to learn how violence actually followed MLK; he was disliked by his own people and he even cheated on his wife. It was also interesting to read of a young Jesse Jackson who wiped MLK’s blood on his shirt and lied to the press saying that MLK had died in his arms, despite an argument they had had shortly before King was killed. We also get to read of an interesting time in history led by Hoover and Johnson tucked between the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers.

And while the hunt is on, we see a very unorganized African American society doing everything King was against. They rioted, they killed, they stole, they fought; and they couldn’t even maintain the purpose of Resurrection City which was to pay homage to King’s mission. And yet history has still made King a martyr just like most of our white American history did to its various leaders and their place in history.

I’m not usually a nonfiction or history buff, but I thoroughly enjoyed this read – fact or not as other reviewers have criticized. It’s a part of history that I know, but that I probably don’t know as well as I should. I’m not saying I believe everything in this book, though the author does state in the beginning that it is based completely on facts. Others who know more than me have already pointed out Sides’ possible errors. But outside of that, Sides gives us a detailed and intriguing account to one man who caused our nation great sadness. And while it may be hard to believe that one man could have done just that, you must remember that MLK was just one man too.

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