I just finished reading Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides, subtitled: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr and the International Hunt For His Assassin.
Before reading this, I admit I was woefully ignorant of any of the facts, forces, mythology, or context of the MLK murder. I knew it was in Memphis, I knew he was here because of a garbage collector strike. That's about it. What Sides does so well is wrap this event in an almost novelized form to give it so much context and life. Alternating chapters highlighting James Earl Ray (and his whole cadre of aliases and fake identities) and MLK, the book builds incredible suspense up to the point of the assassination, and then beyond, as the FBI begins a weeks-long, international hunt for JER. He tries to escape to Rhodesia to become part of a white supremacist paradise that supposedly exists there that he's read about in various nazi and white power magazines.
I really enjoyed reading about JER's fucked up life and the incremental steps it took him to end up murdering Dr. King, but what I enjoyed most of all were the history lessons. Sides is a native of Memphis, and fills the book with all kinds of sociological and political background on why it was such a powder keg of a city. Unlike other black majority cities in the United States at that time, Memphis was once the epicenter of the cotton trade, and had made a lot of white people extremely wealthy, while paradoxically keeping the large black population subservient and in poverty, but employed, nonetheless. (In a somewhat perverted irony, the old "Cotton Row" of South Front Street in downtown Memphis, where white landowners had all of their offices, is now a mile of renovated, upscale condos full of rich white people overlooking the river.) Up until the early 1980's Memphis had a huge celebration, on the scale of Mardi Gras, called the Memphis Cotton Carnival with a King, a Queen, a Royal Court, and a huge barge that would float down the Mississippi with Egyptian-themed decorations to pay homage to the only city in America named after an African capitol.
Cotton Row downtown Memphis
When the cotton jobs dried up due to automation, more and more Delta blacks moved into the city to try to find work. Very little was available except service jobs, and one of the biggest employers was the city itself, in the form of garbage collectors. It was the death of 2 workers by being crushed in their faulty trucks that led to the 68-day garbage strike that was the nexus of the murder of Dr. King.
Another interesting subplot of the book was James Earl Ray's obsession with George Wallace. As Sides describes Wallace's political activities, whether it's intentional or not, he sounds a whole lot like another base-rousing, divisive Republican politician who is the de facto leader of the party, but who party elites don't like because she can't win a general election. I'm just sayin.
It is interesting to me, though, not being a particularly adept student of history, that the arguments conservatives use today are the same arguments they used back in the 60's against civil rights: state's rights, the tyranny of the federal government "cramming" civil rights "down our throats." Wallace was part of a 3rd party American Independent Party hellbent of taking the White House and repealing the gains of the civil rights movement. In a biography of Wallace he is described as "the surly orphan of American politics... the grim joker in the deck, whose nightrider candidacy is a rough approximation of the potential for an American fascism." He called President Johnson's civil rights legislation "an assassin's knife stuck in the back of liberty." And about the riots that swept Watts and other cities, he liked to say you could count on "pointy-headed intellectuals to explain it away, whining that the poor rioters didn't get any watermelon to eat when they were 10 years old."
It would be really shocking if it didn't sound so similar to so much of today's conservative rhetoric. In fact, only one month after King's assassination in Memphis, Wallace held a comeback dinner there (he had dropped out of the presidential race briefly when his wife died of cancer), with 13,000 participants, to rekindle his race.
Nobody can accuse George Wallace of having too much class, that's for sure. No one thought he could actually win in 1968, but that he would have enough power to potentially spoil the race. Life magazine declared, "In both the North and the South, Wallace appears to be tapping a powerful underground stream of discontent."
It is true, kids, this is why we study history. Everything is cyclical, is it not? That, more than anything, is what I found so interesting about Hellhound. Not that I think we're going through anything nearly as traumatic as the civil rights movement of the 60's, but really, the parallels are eerie. And ultimately, we came out of that okay. The book actually make me feel strangely hopeful.
King's death was the first time Wall Street ever shut down to honor a civilian. It was the first time flags all over the country were ordered flown at half mast for a civilian death. Hellhound is that rare work of art that is full of pathos, dread, heartbreak, desperation, hopelessness, despair, and yet still comes out hopeful and stronger for it at the end.