Hampton Sides' 'Hellhound' is rooted in personal history

In that difficult year of 1968 -- setbacks in the Vietnam War, political uncertainty and racial tensions -- Memphis, Tenn., became the focus of national attention in the spring.

A strike by the city's largely African-American refuse collectors was rocking the Mississippi River town, home of Elvis Presley and 6-year-old Hampton Sides.

Later, following his two best-selling popular histories, "Ghost Soldiers" and "Blood and Thunder," the terrible events that engulfed his native city in April would prove to be the genesis for his third book, "Hellhound on His Trail."

"I realized, even as a kid of 6 that the glare of the nation was turned on my home," he said by phone from the St. Louis leg of his book tour. Mr. Sides continues his tour here Wednesday with an appearance at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown.

"It made me aware for the first time about the impact and importance of history, so I decided to return to my hometown for this book."

Two men traveled to Mr. Sides' Memphis that spring:

Civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 39, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, and James Earl Ray, 38, escaped convict, drifter and racist.

Ray killed Rev. King with a single rifle shot April 4, sparking urban riots from coast to coast and forcing the leader's enemy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, into ordering a massive manhunt for Rev. King's killer.

"This hunt turned into the biggest detective case in history," Mr. Sides said. In the days before computer databases, e-mail and sophisticated forensics, the FBI "used a lot of shoe leather and sweat to track down Ray," the writer said. "The amount of man hours spent was incredible."

He was caught June 8 at Britain's Heathrow Airport trying to buy a plane ticket to Rhodesia, then a nation led by white supremacists. Ray's ability to escape from prison, pay for his extensive travels in America, Mexico, Canada, Portugal and England, devise aliases and obtain passports has fueled a raft of conspiracy theories.

"We don't have all the answers," said Mr. Sides, who admits he is a bit of a conspiracist. "I believe he had help, but this conspiracy was crude and not very well funded."

Ray's two brothers were probably involved in his life on the lam. "His brothers come up repeatedly in his story, but Ray would never name them. He was proud of never being a snitch."

His deep-seated hatred of African-Americans propelled Ray to plot Rev. King's murder, egged on by the racist rhetoric of George Wallace, the ex-Alabama governor who ran for president in 1968 on a platform of discrimination and distrust of government.

Echoing the current dissatisfaction with elected officials, Mr. Wallace said on national TV:

"There is a movement of the people and it doesn't make any difference whether the leading politicians endorse it or not. ... those are the mass of people that are going to support a change on the domestic scene. If the politicians get in the way of this movement, a lot of them are going to get run over."

"There's definitely a culture of hate dating from 1968 that's alive and well today in the echo chamber of Internet and chatter that's out there," Mr. Sides said. "The message is: Take back the nation and take back the government and that's perfectly fine, but there are a lot of lost souls out there who think they can pick up a gun and change the government.

"Demagogues don't realize that their poison can cause trouble," he continued. "Wallace in '68 had put his finger on the throbbing vein of frustration and Ray responded to Wallace's message."

Mr. Wallace, Mr. Hoover and President Johnson found Rev. King's speeches veering into demagoguery as well, particularly after years of violence in America's cities. The leader seemed to be losing authority among his followers as he ventured to Memphis in the spring of 1968, a situation that Mr. Sides highlights in his book.

"There's such a halo glow about King and that's understandable," Mr. Sides said. "He was a truly great man, but he was a human being with plenty of faults. He smoked, he drank, he had affairs. It all humanized him."

Throughout the difficulties of '68, Rev. King remained steadfast in his belief in nonviolence, said the writer. "I always was in awe of King, but after doing this book, I came to have more awe for him because of the power of his personality."

Hampton Sides speaks at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. It's free.

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com . First Published May 16, 2010 4:00 AM


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