Although the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis back in 1968 is the focus of Hampton Sides’ amazingly detailed new non-fiction book, Hellhound on His Trail (Doubleday), that incident happens less than halfway into the story. Most of Hellhound is about a man we first meet as Convict 416-J, who is preparing to escape from Jefferson City, Missouri’s tough prison in 1967 in the back of a bread truck, hiding in a box of loaves he himself baked.
That convict, of course, was James Earl Ray. We have learned a lot about Ray since his own death, in another jail in 1998. But Sides has gone well beyond what journalists and others--as well as Ray himself--have written. He has created a frightening, totally believable villain, who mixed delusions of grandeur with the worst kinds of anger and hatred to produce a poisonous, psychopathic broth.
The title of this book comes in part from an MLK quote: “Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every working moment of their lives.” But Sides shows his art and purpose by coupling that with an earlier quote from the doomed Blues musician Robert Johnson--“There’s a hellhound on my trail.”
After shooting King to death on a motel balcony, Ray--using the name “Eric Galt”--fled to Southern California. “While Galt was living in Los Angeles, one other passion ... absorbed much of his time,” Sides tells us. “He became infatuated with the Wallace campaign.”
Indeed, it was former Alabama Governor George Wallace’s presidential run that whipped up Ray’s own racist sensibilities against MLK. More hellhounds included FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his obedient cronies.
Mixing black and white usually results in gray. But Sides has so much skill that his portraits of everybody involved in this historical tragedy are memorably vivid.