Who was James Earl Ray? He was Prisoner #00416-JA, charged with armed robbery and sentenced to 25 years, when he broke out of the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967. But he was "Eric Galt" when he arrived in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. That's where he hung out, a free man who frequented whorehouses and hit on the idea of becoming a pornographer.
Ray then went to Los Angeles, where he attended bartending school and enrolled in a correspondence course with dreams of becoming a first-rate safe-cracker. It's also where he learned to cha-cha and got his nose fixed. His goal was Africa to become a mercenary for the white-ruling government of Rhodesia, but first he fell in with the George Wallace presidential campaign. And to further fill the time, he read self-help books and one book especially: Psycho-cybernetics. Its chief teaching: "The automatic creative mechanism within you can operate in only one way: It must have a target to shoot at."
By April 1968, Ray had found his target — in downtown Memphis, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and within striking distance from the bathroom window of a South Main flophouse. The target was Martin Luther King Jr., and within minutes of the shooting, the hunt for Ray was on. Less than three months later, the hunt was over — in London, with Ray trying to reach Rhodesia.
That massive manhunt is meticulously reconstructed in Hampton Sides' Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin (Doubleday), and the major figures and issues are all here: In addition to King and the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, there's Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, a mistress of King's, Lyndon Johnson, Ramsey Clark, J. Edgar Hoover, Henry Loeb, Memphis doctors, squads of local policemen and national FBI agents, Canadian authorities and Scotland Yard. But the focus throughout is Ray. According to Sides (a native Memphian who was 6 years old when King was killed and whose books include the best-selling Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder, in addition to a career's worth of journalism), Ray is, in narrative terms, "the gift that keeps on giving."
"He's a stew of quirks, odd influences, impulses, especially in Ray's Los Angeles days," Sides said in an interview with the Flyer. "There's no one motivation. It's like he's got numerous submotivations that he throws into a blender — a blender that he flips to 'puree.' Good luck trying to figure out what he created in that blender."
And good luck figuring out that moment in Ray's psyche when hatred of a national leader turned to the killing of that leader. According to Sides:
"It's the most frustrating part of writing a book like this. You want to know the motivation, because that's what separates 'us' from 'them.' All of us have stuff we don't like in society, the way society's working — politicians, social trends. But all of us don't buy a high-power rifle and take aim. I wish I understood that about Ray. I can't say I ever came to understand that moment when he decided to kill King."
That's "he," James Earl Ray, and not a conspiracy of background individuals who engineered King's killing. "As a journalist, I suppose I wanted to believe there was a conspiracy, because, frankly, it's a 'sexier' story," Sides said. But he'll admit that there are unanswered questions in this case.
"I'm not emotionally invested in the idea that Ray had to have been working alone. Some anti-conspiracists have taken that position: case closed, no doubt Ray was the lone guy. Well, there are parts of this story that are not absolutely clear."
Care to question Sides yourself on what's not clear? You can at the Q&A that's part of a program on Tuesday, April 27th. Hampton Sides will be at Memphis University School, his first stop on a tour to promote Hellhound on His Trail. The author will be signing copies of his book, and he'll be part of a panel that includes filmmaker Stephen Ives, who has directed Roads to Memphis. The documentary, a companion to Hellhound on His Trail, airs on May 3rd on the PBS series American Experience. The program at MUS begins at 7 p.m. inside the school's Hyde Chapel.