With the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) a few days ago, I felt it appropriate to read Hampton Sides’ stellar account of the lead-up to the event and the hunt for the killer. I’d heard much about it and knew that I would be in for something that would educate me, as well as provide context for this important event in more recent American history. Sides delivers a powerful narrative of the year preceding the King assassination, from multiple perspectives. America in the late 60s was a hotbed when it came to civil rights, particularly with MLK’s marches and the push by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to bring attention to events in the Deep South. Depicting some of the SCLC’s goals, Sides provides the reader with some excellent sentiments about the danger lurking in the shadows, particularly in Alabama, Mississippi, and even into Tennessee. Meanwhile, former Alabama Governor George Wallace was in the middle of a campaign for president, seeking to solidify the southern sentiment about the need for segregation and keeping those of colour at bay. While a smaller and less impactful narrative, it does provide the reader with some insight into southern thinking from one of its most notorious political figures. Another man with his eye on MLK and hatred towards the cause was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Sides provides the reader with an insightful perspective into how little the Director felt for the SCLC’s cause and the issues that MLK kept raising. Sides repeatedly quotes sentiments Hoover made about the movement, feeling it was nothing but a collective of troublemakers. This would prove important as the story progresses. Perhaps most important of all is the narrative surrounding Eric Galt (pseudonym used by James Earl Ray), depicting his travel from Atlanta to Mexico and even out to Los Angeles, all after his 1967 prison break, explained in detail during the opening chapter. Sides weaves quite the tale as Galt sought to stay off the radar while creating his new persona. With MLK’s arrival in Memphis for another march, Galt chose a flophouse close to where the leader stayed and made final preparations to undertake a dastardly event that would rock the civil rights movement and American history. After the shots that would lead to MLK’s death, Galt fled the city, leaving a vague trail as he sought to hide from authorities of all kinds. This secondary run on the lam left Galt to flee to Toronto, the largest city in Canada. Sides explores the ongoing bait and switch techniques Galt undertook as he sought to disappear off the North American continent, especially when American officials locked in on his identity and he became the most sought-after fugitive by the FBI. The rush by the FBI to find MLK’s killer and bring him to justice contradicts its director’s earlier dismissal of the radical, though this is not lost on Sides or the attentive reader. The final race to locate and bring Galt (now identified as James Earl Ray) to justice leaves the latter portion of the book’s narrative full of twists that will captivate the reader. Even fifty years after the event, Sides injects enough drama and detail to keep any curious reader on the edge of their seats. Highly recommended to lovers of recent US history, particularly those trying late 1960s. Sides has what it takes to breathe life into an old debate that seems to have become highly relevant again.
My interest in the MLK assassination has been percolating for a long time, as I enjoy reading about the civil rights movement in the US and 1968 as a year of action. I recently read a piece of fiction related to the MLK assassination, positing some interesting theories, which piqued my interest to find some factual accounts related to these events. Sides discusses in his introduction that much of the narrative is tied together by his extensive research, which allows for a strong narrative that captivates the reader’s attention. Using the opening portion of the book to lay the groundwork for many key actors prevalent to the larger narrative, this permits the reader to have a better handle on the political and social picture in 1968 America. The detail to which Sides goes to explore both MLK’s movement and Galt’s journey across the continent provides a vivid picture that permits the reader to almost feel present at each event. What might be most interesting of all is Sides’ great focus on the path Galt (Ray) took, leading to a time in Canada and Europe before being caught inadvertently as he sought to travel further. Sides provides such a fluid writing style that the storytelling almost seems fictitious in its detail. As one fellow reader commented to me, the story progresses in such a way that each night of reading can end with an intense cliffhanger, even with the final outcome firmly branded in history texts already. It is worth noting that Sides does not appear ready to plant ideas of conspiracy or point fingers as Ray’s involvement in a larger planned movement, but rather to gather vast amounts of the readily available documentation to create a stellar narrative that any interested reader can enjoy. With chapters of various lengths, all full of factual depictions, Sides shows himself to be a sensational historian that can entertain as well as educate. I can only hope to find more of his work to see how he tackles other events that shaped American history.
Kudos, Mr. Sides, for your powerful piece that touched on all those aspects about which I wondered. I hope many will take the time to explore this and other pieces surrounding those most important 20th century events in America’s long history.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons