Hampton Sides was just 6 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Sides went on to become a respected journalist and author of several bestsellers about everything from the Wild West to World War II, but he never stopped thinking about how King's death continued to reverberate through his hometown — especially in the figure of King's assassin, James Earl Ray. And so, several years ago, Sides went back to Memphis and began to reconstruct the events that brought Ray and King together — and that pulled the nation apart. The result was Hellhound on His Trail, a taut, finely wrought story that spent weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and is now being turned into a movie by Universal Studios.
On April 2 at 2 p.m., Sides will read from and sign copies of Hellhound on His Trail at the Nashville Public Library. His appearance is the inaugural event of Salon at 615, a series of readings sponsored by Humanities Tennessee and the Nashville Public Library. The event is free and open to the public. Barnes & Noble Booksellers will be on hand to sell copies of the book.
You say Memphis still reverberates with the legacy of King's assassination: in what ways? Put another way, while the city must have changed since then, how does the Memphis of 2011 compare with the one you grew up in, and how did King's killing affect that course?
I think the turmoil surrounding the assassination and the garbage strike set back the course of race relations many years in Memphis and accelerated the phenomenon of mass white flight to the suburbs. It also left a sense of stigma that's hung over our city — not unlike the one that hung over Dallas after JFK. The irony is that through its music, Memphis had arguably done more to integrate the nation than a hundred pieces of legislation — the powerful music scene there has always been about racial cross-pollination. Yet suddenly, with the King assassination, Memphis became synonymous with backwards policies and racial martyrdom. Memphis is now a big, bustling international city, but in some ways, it still has a chip on its shoulder and an inferiority complex that dates back to April 4, 1968.
James Earl Ray is, of course, a major figure in your book. You spend a lot of time developing his background and life story, yet in some ways — and this is to your credit — there remains something inscrutable, something paradoxical about him at the end of the book. He's a racist but more of a casual type than a fire breather, certainly not someone you'd expect to assassinate someone. And yet he did. All good dramatic characters are written with something unresolvable about them. Still, he was a real person, with real reasons for acting. What do you ultimately make of him as a historical figure? What do you think motivated him?
Ray is the kind of person who slips between the cracks. He's crafty and cunning, but not exactly smart. He's a racist, but not all-consumingly so. He's absolutely nutty, and a sociopath, but not a deranged psychotic like some of our assassins. He's certainly capable enough of bringing off a murder, but not the sort of guy you'd hire as a professional hit man if you were, say, the Mafia or some other criminal syndicate. Why did he do it? That's still the hardest question to answer. And because he lied all the way to his grave, we may never know.
It's hard sometimes to find a clean rational explanation for an insane act of violence. It probably made sense in his own disturbed mind. I'm convinced that killing King solved a lot of his problems. It gave him something to plan and plot and focus his energies on. It fit into his politics. He actually thought it would help Gov. Wallace's presidential bid. He also hoped it would make him money — Ray was well aware of the bounties out there on King's head and hoped to connect with them. In the end, though, I think he did it for some kind of recognition. He spent his entire criminal career striving for anonymity, yet he wanted the world to know he existed. He wanted to do something big, bold and lasting. And sadly, like so many before him, he found that gunning down a charismatic national figure was the best way to achieve this.
Finally, the inevitable closer — beyond the sales numbers, what's been the reaction to the book? Anything surprising that might tell you something new about the way America is still grappling with King's death and the 1960s?
Twain said that history doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it "rhymes." I think there are a lot of echoes and similarities between the late 1960s and today. Here we are fighting an unpopular war against hard-to-find enemies on the other side of the planet, a war that seems both intractable and interminable and is draining our nation's coffers. Here we are with a charismatic but controversial man in the White House who seems a curious amalgam of JFK, RFK and MLK. Here we are with a grassroots political movement, the Tea Partiers, who, like the Wallace campaign before them, seem to be capturing and amplifying reactionary forces in our society. And as the recent Arizona shooting shows, we still have a penchant for hatching madmen who, for whatever sad reasons, try to take aim at history. I certainly think it's true that we're still grappling with the meaning of King's life and the significance of his death. There are now four major King film projects under development — one of them based on my book. In today's inflamed environment, King's essential message of social change through nonviolence is more vital than ever.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.