Nationally renowned writer Hampton Sides is a Memphis, Tenn. native and current Santa Fe resident. His most recent nonfiction book, Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin, paints an intricate portrait of the civil rights leader but, perhaps more notably, follows in great detail his assassin, a drifter known as Eric S Galt, John Willard, Harvey Lowmeyer and Ramon George Sneyd, but who was born James Earl Ray. Sides reads from and signs his new book at Collected Works Bookstore (6 pm Friday, May 7. Free. 202 Galisteo St., 988-4226).
SFR: You spent three years researching and writing Hellhound. What was the biggest challenge?
There’s so much information that goes into conspiracies of one sort or another that I had to sort through and figure out what sort of validity it had. I started out looking for conspiracies…but I gradually came to the conclusion that Ray had done it. At that point, it freed me up to say, ‘All right, let’s look at Ray. Who was he? What do we know about him? What were his movements? What were his habits?’—and, wow, what a weird guy.
That’s one way to put it.
In narrative terms, he’s a gift that keeps on giving. He just keeps doing things that are curious and strange and unpredictable. You don’t know what he’s going to do next. He robs a bank; he robs a jewelry store; he breaks out of two maximum-security prisons; he says all these crazy things; he’s into dance lessons and bartending lessons and hypnosis and wants to be a porn director and gets a nose job—it goes on and on.
You traveled extensively for the book. Is there a place where King’s legacy is especially palpable?
Certainly, Memphis. The Lorraine Motel, where he was shot, is now a shrine—it’s become the National Civil Rights Museum. And Memphis in general is still, I think, reckoning with and struggling with the meaning of this assassination. It further divided an already racially divided town.
You grew up in Memphis. While you were growing up, did you have a sense of that stigma?
It’s something I heard about a lot, and I remember being vaguely ashamed that it happened in my hometown. Like somehow it was my fault, or the town’s fault. I think a lot of people think that Ray was from Memphis—which he wasn’t. He was from Illinois and stalked King to Selma and Atlanta and finally Memphis. In that sense, it was kind of an accident that it happened there.
The historical and symbolic significance of Memphis does show, though.
I came to see the history of Memphis in a larger context; I came to see that it was almost scripted to happen in Memphis, of all places: the capital of cotton and the Delta and blues and soul music and rock ’n’ roll. It’s a city very much perched on the racial fault line—the city named after an African capitol: Memphis on the Nile, Memphis on the Mississippi. It’s just so rich and resonant and
tragic…When King made his last speech the night before he died, he tapped in to all that Egypt stuff—slavery and being led out of captivity; all those images and metaphors ran throughout that speech.
When Ray was apprehended in 1968, he pled guilty…in 1997, he was seeking to appeal…but he died in 1998 before the case could go to trial. What would the effect of a trial have been?
That was the thing that the King family really wanted—a real trial. Not so much to prove that Ray was in fact guilty, but the assumption was that a lot of stuff would come out. But honestly, I don’t think much would have come of it. Ray lied so much; he changed his story so much—why would anyone believe him? It would have been interesting, it would have been dramatic…but I think in the end, the evidence is still overwhelming. I don’t think the verdict would have changed.
Even though the evidence is overwhelming, Ray left a cloud of confusion in his wake.
The weirdest thing was when Dexter King, Martin Luther King’s son, came to prison and shook Ray’s hand and asked him, point-blank: ‘Did you kill my father?’ and Ray said, ‘No, no I didn’t.’ But then, just like Ray, there’s always a little asterisk. Right after that, he said, ‘But you see, these things are all very complicated.’ And then he mumbled something that you couldn’t understand. That’s Ray, right there, in a nutshell.