Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides

I have been trying in the last few years to learn more about the Civil Rights movement, which unfortunately we never got to in any of my history classes in school (they all seemed to hit WWII right at the end of the school year.) And assassinations are always fascinating. I mean, who thinks that's a solution to anything? What is the assassin thinking? With today's violence, that's more intriguing than ever.

This book is as close to getting inside the mind of James Earl Ray as any book will ever get. Although he is called Eric Galt pretty much throughout the book (the alias he was using at the time), you know where the book is going to end up, and it's disturbing to sit by calmly and watch as Galt methodically and without much emotion plans and executes his murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. And I was utterly shocked to discover he escaped and was even travelling abroad, trying to completely get away (he wanted to go to South Africa, where he thought he'd be embraced) for two months afterwards! Many years ago I had also been shocked when I read in Manhunt how John Wilkes Booth was on the lam for two weeks, but this time span was unimaginable.

It meant that the FBI, lead by J. Edgar Hoover who utterly detested King, had to conduct the largest manhunt ever. It was captivating, how meticulously this was investigated. They went so far as to discover the manufacturer of a label maker used by a laundry service Galt had used, and tracked down every single one of the machines. The manhunt was almost more interesting than the preamble, as Galt/Ray was a sad, awkward misfit who was difficult to understand. The hardest to understand was his racism, which apparently was substantial, and yet there was little record of. He wasn't a member of the KKK and he didn't write or say hardly anything publicly ever about his feelings about African-Americans. It is incongruous that someone racist enough to commit this act, wasn't louder about his opinions. He also seemed very sane. And yet he committed an insane act.

As for King, he never expected to live long, and he often spoke of how he expected his life to end this way. He knew what he was doing was dangerous, but he also knew it must be done. He was in Memphis to support and lead a protest on behalf of local striking garbagemen. Garbagemen in Memphis were so below consideration that a couple of garbage trucks killed workers and no one really seemed to care. The protest signs poignantly read "I am a man," as even the very basic human right of life wasn't being respected for these African-Americans. To me, I can hear that echo in "Black lives matter," today.

The immediate aftermath was also interesting as Jesse Jackson rubbed blood on his shirt (he was at the hotel but not immediately at the scene of the assassination) and took many opportunities to increase his media presence. And those who took the reins of the SCLC could never begin to fill Dr. King;s shoes, and the massive protest in Washington D.C. of the impoverished, floundered without his vision and guidance.

Well-written, exhaustively researched, and a subject matter I needed to know more about, this book was well worth reading, and most Americans should pick it up, if you don't know the story. It will enlighten you.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.

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