When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a lot of people, including numerous civil-rights leaders and at least one congressman, assumed that a conspiracy lay behind his death. Much of this suspicion can be blamed on the sour, paranoid, unstable atmosphere of the late ’60s, a climate that Hampton Sides recreates brilliantly in Hellhound on His Trail, his account of King’s murder and the search for his killer. The deaths of King and the Kennedys, the inner-city riots, the Vietnam War—these events combined to create a mood where anything could happen, as long as it was tragic, and where the pronouncements of public figures were met with no small degree of disbelief. Racist extremists were the obvious suspects in King’s death, but even the FBI did not escape suspicion. After all, J. Edgar Hoover had been trying to smear King for most of the decade. When a 40-year-old jailbird named James Earl Ray was charged with King’s murder, almost no one thought that was the end of the story.
Ray seemed an especially unsatisfying suspect. A lifelong but not especially successful crook (he had spent almost half his adult life behind bars), he was clever enough to engineer his escape—by squeezing himself into a breadbox going out on a delivery truck—from a maximum-security prison in 1967. On the other hand, he was so witless that after shooting King, he had no escape plan more elaborate than jumping in his car and driving away. Even so, he managed to elude law officers for two months before he was caught. Some of Ray’s success was just dumb luck, but most of it can be attributed to the fact that he was astonishingly forgettable. Landlords, employers, prison guards—even his own sister—had trouble remembering a single memorable thing about him. As for what drove Ray to kill King, there too the evidence comes up short. While he was certainly a racist (he worked to get George Wallace on the ballot in California), he had no history as aviolent criminal, and there is nothing that explains exactly what pushed him to get in his car in mid-March 1968 and drive from Los Angeles to Atlanta and then on to Memphis, where, only four hours before the shooting, he rented a room in a boardinghouse overlooking the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying.
Sides does an amazing job of finding suspense in a sadly familiar story—but sometimes he does too well: he milks the moment Ray shoots King, for example, with an almost pornographic voyeurism. Surely that’s a moment where technique should give way to a strictly factual account. But that’s a minor lapse in a book that elsewhere so successfully rekindles the horror of the King assassination and the milieu in which it happened.
Hellhound appears at the same time a documentary, Road to Memphis, airs on the American Experience series on PBS. Sides contributed to the documentary, but the two versions of events are noteworthy in how they diverge. The film paints Ray more declaratively as a racist on a deadly mission. Sides’s book lives more in the shadows and dwells profitably on the vague outlines of Ray’s personality. It’s not that Sides doubts that Ray killed King, but that the author cannot uncover any strong motive for the assassin’s act. This view, ultimately, is far more unsettling, as cause and effect fall out of balance. We like our villains to be clear-cut. It makes sense of their heinousness, and there is some comfort in that. But there is no explaining Ray, and that is the most frightening thought of all.