Monday, April 4, 2011

"Discrimination is a hellhound" - MLK 1967

Even though I grew up in a predominantly white city, I was always taught that people were people regardless of their color. Of course not everyone felt that way, but most people did. There was the occasional name-calling and ethnic jokes, but it seemed more immature than serious.  I grew up on the poorer side of town and had a few friends who were black or Mexican or Japanese, and even though there were sometimes small differences between us, none of it really mattered. We were all just kids. So I'm always a little uncomfortable reading about violent discrimination. I know it exists, but it seemed like something from history - not something that happened in my lifetime. At least not in it's uglier manifestations.

In the late afternoon hours of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by a single gunshot fired from a distance. The manhunt for his assassin would be the largest in American history and cover two continents and five countries. King had been drawn to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers after two men were crushed to death in a garbage truck accident. His assassin was drawn to Memphis by racism and a desire to kill King. In the end the manhunt led to a drifter who had escaped from prison in a breadbox nearly a year before, and would culminate sixty-five days later when he was apprehended by Scotland Yard detectives in London.

Hellhond on His Trail(Hellhound on His Trail:Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. International Hunt for His Assassin [Hardcover](2010)by Hampton SidesI've been sitting on Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin for nearly a year, not especially interested in the history of the civil rights movement. But I’d enjoyed other books by Hampton Sides, and appreciated his ability to tell a good story in Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder, and having recently finished another excellent book on the near assassination of Ronald Reagan, I thought it might be a good time to read this one - and it doesn't disappoint! Sides brings the story alive with thousands of small details, reconstructing the trail of Prisoner #416J as he morphs through a list of aliases - Eric Starvo Galt, Harvey Lowmeyer, John Willard, Paul Bridgman, Ramon George Sneyd - but in the end he was just a middle-aged racist named James Earl Ray who'd been discharged from the Army for "ineptness" and carried a rap sheet as long as his arm.

But Sides weaves the story of Galt/Ray into the mission of Martin Luther King and his fading civil rights campaign. The non-violence movement was splintering under the frustration of others such as Jesse Jackson, and the initial march in Memphis had gone terribly awry further undermining his Poor People's Campaign. J. Edgar Hoover hovers on the sidelines as well, as the adversary who had relentlessly spied on King to being responsible to hunt down his killer. Sides is careful to stick to the facts - mentioning but not veering off into conspiracy theories - which results in a story that's incredibly believable and impossible to put down. The account of King's shooting is extremely sad, and I was embarrassed by the discrimination of the time (I would have been crawling around in diapers when the assassination happened). But it was a fascinating part of history which I had largely ignored and a book which I strongly recommend.

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