Top positive review
A Compelling and Lucid Account
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on June 23, 2018
We've been bombarded with so much information and speculation about the JFK assassination over the years that most of us can speak knowledgeably about details such as the trajectory of the bullet from the Book Depository. By contrast, most us probably know very little about the circumstances surrounding Martin Luther King's assassination a few years later. We might recall “James Earl Ray,” the name of the man imprisoned for the crime, but beyond that – we're blank. This book fills in a lot of those blanks.
Ignore the confusing title of this book. Once you get past that and into the book itself, you will find a lucid, engrossing account of the times, as they were in the violent throes of “a-changin” in the 1960's. Hampton Sides interweaves accounts of the attitudes and actions of some of those most intimately concerned with the assassination. We learn about J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Alabama Governor George Wallace, LBJ, MLK, and Ray himself, as they were all converging towards that tragic moment on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.
Sides ably evokes the southern culture of Memphis that prevailed then – the debutante balls, the Cotton Festival Parade with its Queen. Northerners will find words such as “krewes” and “hoss” that they probably hadn't heard before. Then Sides throws in the occasional telling metaphor. He describes the conflict that took place between the older, moderate MLK contingent and the radical Stokely Carmichael black power contingent as being a clash between “clerical collars and dashikis.” He even summons occasional poetry to describe the tragedy. He reports how Ralph Abernathy observed that there were longer and longer pauses between the breaths that the stricken King was able to take – until there came the pause that “he knew would never end.”
There' not a great deal of biographical background on Ray here beyond a sort of thumbnail sketch. There's also almost nothing about the legal maneuvering that took place after Ray's capture. However the reader is able to follow in Ray's tracks as he uses a variety of aliases along his travels through a number of foreign countries in the course of executing his plan and making his escape. You will probably find some aspects of his evasions to be remarkably sophisticated and clever. For example, when Ray believed he'd need a Canadian citizen to vouch for him in order to get a Canadian passport, he set up an alter-identity as a Canadian so that in the guise of one persona, he could vouch for himself in the guise of the other persona. Also, both before and after the assassination, Ray effected any number of remarkably sly prison escapes. (He was an escapee at the time of the shooting.) This is all the more remarkable because most people who interacted with Ray didn't regard him as being of exceptionally high intelligence.
However author Sides doesn't spiral off into any Oliver Stone-like conspiracy theories. In his summary, he does consider that Ray might have initially obtained some contributions from segregationist and pro-Klan groups that were operating powerfully in the South at the time. But in general, Sides seems to conclude that Ray acted alone, without any sinister backing from the FBI, the CIA, or any of the other usual suspects.
I only have a few quibbles. Unfortunately, the book has no index, something that would have been helpful in refreshing the reader's memory about who some of the named officials were as their names crop up in separate parts of the book. Another slight tripping point – once into the account, Sides refers to Ray only by one of the main aliases he assumed - “Eric Galt.” This is a little puzzling. Is Sides leaving open the question of whether Ray was in fact the person who shot MLK? “Galt” did it, whoever Galt might have been. Since there doesn't seem to be much question that Ray was indeed the shooter (at least according to Sides' overall attitude) – this way of referring to Ray puts things a little off-center.
However, in general, this is a fascinating account that comes across as a trustworthy chronology. What's more, this book slaps the reader with a shock of awareness regarding a major historical disparity. Why is it that we have been so overloaded with information about Lee Harvey Oswald, while hearing almost nothing about James Earl Ray?