Thursday, April 29, 2010

BTPC Book Review - Hellbound on His Trail

We picked up Hampton Sides' latest book yesterday -- Hellbound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin. (click here for LA Times review). Less than 24 hours later we're done, having plowed through the 400+ pages in an all-night reading marathon.

Needless to say, we highly recommend the book. It's good. Sides has written a scholarly-worthy work of non-fiction (50+ pages of citation notes) that reads like a novel. Sides' style aside, and his style does make for an easy read, we were surprised to realize how little we really knew about MLK's assassination. Sure, we've all seen the photo of members of MLK's entourage pointing out to law enforcement which direction the shot came from. But as history buffs and avid readers, we were shocked to realize how little we really knew about the events leading up to and after Dr. King's assassination.

Until now, we never realized just how much happened during those few spring weeks in 1968. On March 28, 1968, King had led a march in Memphis in support of the garbage, sewer and service workers' strike. That march was marred by violence. King had been rushed from the scene by supporters and escorted by Memphis police to a "white" hotel. King's reputation and legacy were in doubt. The man who had passionately preached non-violence in trying to win respect and rights for his people was now being called a hypocrite and liar. King was faced with dissension amongst his own group, SCLC, who were questioning his desire to hold a "Poor Man's March" on Washington. In essence, King was fighting the young bucks in his own civil rights movement (like Jesse Jackson), being outflanked by the black power movement (the likes of Stokely Carmichael) and was starting to look like he could no longer deliver the promise of nonviolent protest. With all that brewing, LBJ announced on March 31, 1968 that he would neither seek nor serve a second term.

Early April, King returned to Memphis to salvage his reputation by holding a peaceful march, hopefully proving that he still held the reins in the black community. The event was put on hold while King's lawyers fought a federal injunction and on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray put a .30-06 soft-lead round through King's jaw & neck from the communal bathroom of a 5th floor rooming house that neighbored the Lorraine Motel. An international manhunt ensued, leading J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to track down leads from Memphis to Atlanta to California to Puerto Vallarta to Montreal to Toronto to London to Lisbon. On the same day (June 8, 1968) Ray was captured in London, the nation was mourning the loss of another beloved figure: RFK (who had been assassinated on June 5, 1968).

What was most telling for us in reading the book, was the strong parallels we see in the political climate of the spring of 1968 and the present day. Seriously, read this book and then substitute President Obama for King and any one of the right-wing flame throwers (Palin, Beck, Hannity, Rush, Cantor, Boehner) for George Wallace and tell us you can't see the similarities. Hoover was adamant in alleging that King (like Obama) was a communist hellbent on destroying America. We found similarities striking and terrifying.

Anyway, we strongly recommend the book. It was excellent.

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