The Man Who Would Kill King

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

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. …