Bakari's Reviews > Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin

Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides
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Jun 06, 2010

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bookshelves: 2010-books-read, biography
Read in June, 2010

As an Vine reviewer, I get a monthly newsletter of books to choose from and review. Most of them are novels and religious/spiritual books, but occasionally there are one or two technical, biographical, or political books that peek my interest. Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther, Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin.

I had seen the book advertised or reviewed somewhere on the net, but my first thought was why read it? The assassination of King was not even a passing thought compared to the visions, ideas, and roaring march for justice that King and the civil rights movement stood for. As the old saying goes, you can kill the revolutionary but you can’t so easily kill the revolution. It lingers as long as people strive for justice and equality.

But because I have only read in the past a couple of books about King (I May Not Get There with You: the True Martin Luther King, Jr., by Micheal Eric Dyson and another early biography which I can find or remember the title), as well as a few of his own books and speeches, namely Where Do We Go From Here, Stride Toward Freedom, and The Strength to Love (which I think should be required reading in schools across America), I thought I’d see what might be useful in reading Sides’s book.

Hellound on His Trail is a straight forward narrative of the James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated King. It’s clear that Sides wanted to reach broader audience with his book, for it’s not waited down with footnotes and too much tedious detail. Though it contains over fifty pages of sources (mainly other biographies and first hand accounts by people in and outside of the movement), it doesn’t have an index, which I find kind of odd. (I read a bound galley of the book so the final printing may include the index.)

For the most part, I found the book pretty interesting in some areas, while in others I don’t think he went deep enough. Sides paints a picture of many of the leading characters of the time, including of course King and leading members of his SCLC organization, J. Edgar Hoover, and James Earl Ray himself.

What I found awkward though is that Sides told the story using three of Ray’s alias, namely Eric Galt. If you didn’t know that King’s assassin was was named James Earl Ray, you wouldn’t find out until around the end of the book. It almost reads as if Sides were trying to rewrite history. But understandably, I guess, he was simply trying to let the story unfold in terms of how Ray used aliases to disguise himself for several years.

I also think the book doesn’t help readers understand the magnitude of King’s vision. At times he seems to focus more on King’s contradictions (his affairs with other women, and the mistakes he made in the movement) than about the serious racial and class injustices that King and the SCLC were standing up to. He doesn’t overshadow what King was trying to do, but he doesn’t make the time period of that struggle visual enough, in my opinion. There are only few quotes from King’s famous speeches, and there’s nothing about his philosophical views, of which he had many.

Also, the characters in this book seem to be described in the same way—all tragic and incased by their own failures. While for a chapter two you mourn as a reader for the death of King and the impact it had on his family, you’re lead right back to Eric Galt.

Toward the end of the book, you get a description of Ray’s (or is it Galt?) racial hatred of Black people, but you never get a sense of who this man was? You don’t get a deep psychological profile. Sides never gets in his head and makes you understand how Ray was a deep reflection of the racist culture of this country. Indeed Ray comes across as a tragic figure—a tragic nobody, that by the end of the book you could care less about. And yet, what does his ability to pull off the assassination say about the time period and the history of this country? Reflect on that and you might start to get some insight into the racial vitriol thrown at Obama, who ironically is supposed to be a reflection of King’s dream.

Is Hellhound worth reading? Yeah, I would say so if you’re curious about the subject. However, I would strongly recommend reading at least two books and several of speeches by King himself before reading this one. In fact, this book is best read by those already very familiar with the movement and the time period.
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message 1: by Natalie (new)

Natalie I recently read a little more deeply into Hoover's COINTELPRO program, his bizarre hatred of King and attempts to discredit him, and the fact that James Earl Ray was most likely framed and the government (rogue CIA and FBI agents, most probably) set it up to have King killed. It sounds like tinfoil hat stuff, but it convinced me! A little further reading here, though I imagine this is not new ground for you. :)

Bakari Hi Natalie,

Yeah, I have to admit that though I’m aware of the COINTELPRO program, I have yet to investigate it in detail, especially where it concerns the King assassination. So I didn’t want to speculate on it the review. But it is just another issue that Sides ignores in his book. He mentions COINTELPRO in passing, but he’s head strong in making it clear that the FBI and Hoover were sincerely in pursuit of justice when it came to the assassination, though Hoover racist hatred of King and Black people in general was evident to everyone.

Thanks for the link. I think I really need to put Ward Churchill’s book on COINTELPRO on my list of reads. I’ve had it for years, but honestly only read bits and pieces from it.

Terry Hildebrand I was 13 years old when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 and recall the grief of my father and other people around me. The culpability of James Earl Ray in the murder was doubtful from the beginning, but I did not really begin to wake up and begin to think and ask questions and read up on the horrific political assassinations of the 1960's and the covert operations of our country's national security apparatus until about the time of the Supreme Court's election of George Bush to the presidency in 2000.

I have yet to submit a formal review of the book on GoodReads, but I have at, and I gave the book 1-star, only because it is as low as they will allow anyone to rate a book. I regard it as pure FBI propaganda. If you have not read Ward Churchill's book yet, I recommend that you do so - also a companion book published by South End Press by activist attorney Brian Glick entitled War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It.

I also recommend William F. Pepper's book, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King. He was the attorney representing the family of Dr. King in a 1999 wrongful death civil lawsuit, Family of Dr. King vs. Loyd Jowers, et al. Jowers was the owner of a diner located across the street from the Lorraine Motel who admitted to participating in the plot to assassinate Dr. King with members of the Memphis Police Department and other government people, and a mafia boss who probably paid Jowers for his assistance. Also key among the main plotters was an African-American military intelligence operative named Marrell McCollough, who later joined the CIA after the successful assassination of Dr. King. The transcript of the civil trial is available in a book format, entitled The 13th Juror, The Official Transcript of the Martin Luther King Assassination Conspiracy Trial.

Several score witnesses testified in the case over the period of a couple weeks. It took but about an hour of jury deliberation to decide in favor of attorney William Pepper and the King family. Jowers was determined by the judge to be 30% culpable and the other government defendants (City of Memphis, state of Tennessee, and federal government including the FBI) the remaining 70 percent. The corporate-owned mainstream news media naturally has given virtually no attention to the trial or its outcome, not surprisingly.

Bakari Terry, thanks for the feedback. I just recently heard about the William Pepper's book, and I will definitely check it out. I also think the U.S. govt , or rogues in the govt are capable of carrying out assassinations. And there have always been people in power who carry out these assassinations in order to "protect" and further their political and economic agenda. We're not just talking about conspiracy theories here. We're talking about what people are capable of doing, and how things can be set in motion, and stories can be framed in a matter of days and years. I definitely need reconsider the review I wrote of the above book in light of the other evidence.

Kyle Bakari, thank you for your detailed and thoughtful review. In consideration of your closing sentence: even though I'm most likely not as well read on the topic as you are, but I'm familiar with the Civil Rights Movement primarily through documentaries and a very well-spoken pastor in Springfield MO . However, Side's book only increases my interest to read much more on the topic. I believe that "Hellhound" could also encourage readers less familiar with the Civil Rights Movement to do so, especially high school and college students.

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