By Jeff Kline
June 27, 2010
It was 1968 and America was roiling. Opposition to the war in Vietnam
was on the rise. President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced he would
not seek re-election. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy
was etched in people's minds and blacks were increasingly, and
sometimes violently, demanding equal rights.
Then, Martin Luther King Jr., the man at the forefront of the civil
rights battle, was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of a
Many Americans braced for what they were sure was coming: a race war.
In his new book, "Hellhounds on His Trail," author Hampton Sides
takes an in-depth look at James Earl Ray, the man who first admitted
and then denied killing King, and the hurculean manhunt that
eventually put law enforcement onto him.
The Ledger's Book Club was unanimous: Sides has hit a home run. Panel
members found the book informative, giving details of the manhunt and
the man unknown to them, and, for the most part, entertaining.
"It was very informative," panelist Michael Pimentel said. "There was
a lot I didn't know."
Sides begins the book months before the assassination, when Ray
escapes from prison in Missouri and goes to Mexico before returning
to America and living in Los Angeles. He follows Ray's life (as lived
under many alias, most prominently by the name of Eric Galt) in
detail; where he lived, the diversions he undertook such as dance
lessons, graduating from bartending school, trying to become a
photographer and wanting to get into the porn industry.
He uses this same attention to detail throughout the book. King and
his Southern Christian Leadership Conference are not spared. Sides
looks at the organization's in-fighting - Jesse Jackson comes off as
egotistical and opportunistic - and the many pressures on King who
finds himself ridiculed by others who prefer a more violent approach
to the issue of civil rights. King's womanizing is not spared either.
In fact, Sides interviewed the mistress who was with King the night
before his death.
Panelists agree that Sides was able to take this mountain of
information - it's nearly 200 pages into the book before King is
killed - and present it very well.
"I like how he took so many different kinds of sources and weaved
them into a good story. He did a great job of consolidating so much
information into a manageable timetable," panelist Joy Banks said.
"I think he did a better job than some books we've read about weaving
together parallel timelines. He broke it at logical places and picked
up the story at a place that made sense and took it where it needed to go."
"You weren't lost. You didn't need to go back to find your place
again," Pimentel said.
Terry Christian appreciated Sides' dispassionate look at a very
volatile time in American history.
"I liked the book very much. It was well organized, easy to follow
and he doesn't invest a lot of his own opinion and the author's own
viewpoint," something other authors have not done, he said. "He
shares a lot of information and ideas without overloading it with his
Christian also liked how Sides was not unsympathetic, without being
supportive, of Ray's point of view. "Ray was a product of his
culture. Although his ideas were misdirected, you could see where
he's coming from without clouding it with hatred and resentment."
One discordant note comes from panelist Ada Lavin. A history buff who
- like Christian - remembers well the attitude the country had at the
time, Lavin felt she learned a lot of what actually happened before
and after King's killing and in the months leading up to Ray's
arrest. But she still found the book tough to get through.
"It should have been gripping," she said. Instead, she found the writing dry.
Panelist Sally Miller points out that the book leaves many questions
unanswered, such as where did Ray get all his money even with selling
drugs and doing minor hold-ups. Had he not killed King, he likely
wouldn't have been caught, she said.
The book made Christian want to read more about Ray, about what
Coretta Scott King endured, and about J. Edgar Hoover, who hated
King. "He was a weird person with such power and an ego to match it
all, yet he got results. The FBI was at its finest putting every
resource it had tracking Ray down."
Banks said the book fills in many details not found in high school
history books. "All you get is that Martin Luther King was
assassinated by James Earl Ray. Yet it was a really exciting
investigation with the FBI using resources that they really had never
been able to use on a scale that large. The international hunt and
how much of it was just luck, and how they happened to get
information they needed. They caught him in the airport. I enjoyed
the deeper look at the events surrounding the assassination."
Pimentel noted a sobering aspect of the book.
"It gives you an idea of what is in the mind of an obsessed person,"
Pimentel said. "There are people who are walking around like this
today. He lets you into his mind. You get an insight."
[ Jeff Kline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-7524. ]