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King and his killer

In the late days of the Bush administration, it was fashionable among liberals to call George W. Bush the ‘worst’ president since the founding of the republic and to suggest that under his leadership America experienced its own version of the Dark Ages.

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

Hellhound on his Trail Hampton Sides

Allen Lane, pp.459, 25

In the late days of the Bush administration, it was fashionable among liberals to call George W. Bush the ‘worst’ president since the founding of the republic and to suggest that under his leadership America experienced its own version of the Dark Ages.

In the late days of the Bush administration, it was fashionable among liberals to call George W. Bush the ‘worst’ president since the founding of the republic and to suggest that under his leadership America experienced its own version of the Dark Ages.

Even allowing for Bush’s considerable ignorance and malevolent world view, those contemporary doomsayers had forgotten recent history. As bad as the Bush era was, the moral and political nadir of modern America more likely took place, as Hampton Sides’s brilliant narrative reminds us, under Lyndon Johnson’s liberal Democratic administration during the the two months beginning 4 April, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.

It was then that an escaped convict and drifter, living under an alias, aimed a high-powered hunting rifle at Martin Luther King, Jr’s head and squeezed the trigger. Sides leads us to the conclusion that the bullet that ‘struck the right side of King’s face at a velocity of 2,670 feet per second’ was the inevitable, culminating act of a pure-bred American ‘hellhound’ — a twisted wreck of a man who symbolised all that was wrong with a country then headed if not straight down the road to hell, at least somewhere in the vicinity of a spiritual breakdown.

Sides’s duel portrait of King and his killer, James Earl Ray, overflows with revealing detail and paradox, but one irony is paramount: from the moment he came to prominence during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King and his non-violent campaign for black civil rights attracted the hostility of both law-defying racists and law-enforcement officers. Bull Connor, the bigoted, violent, King-hating police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, merely did in public what other cops — most notably J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation — dared only dream of.

The weirdly prudish Hoover, whose own sexuality remains something of a mystery, despised not only King the political ‘subversive’, but also King the philanderer, whose heterosexual sex life was far too active for the bachelor G-man’s opaque sense of propriety. By the spring of 1968, spying on King by national and local authorities had been institutionalised to the point that no one seemed to pay much attention to the constant death threats directed at him. To Hoover and many local police chiefs, King himself was a greater menace to public safety than the simmering rage, sometimes boiling into self-destructive madness, that underlay relations between white and black America in the Fifties and Sixties.

Thus, when a re-invigorated King returned for the last time to Memphis to continue his support of striking black garbagemen, he was stalked simultaneously by his assassin and the Memphis police department. While Ray was scouting the Lorraine Motel with binoculars for a clear shot at King from a rooming house on South Main Street, a black patrolman, Willie Richmond, was watching King through his binoculars, a stone’s throw from Ray, from a firehouse across from the Lorraine on Mulberry Street.

Why Richmond and his colleagues in TAC Unit 10 weren’t watching out for Ray, or someone like Ray, is the significant, implicit question posed by Sides. How could a self-respecting democratic people permit their government to treat an eloquent, peacemaking Baptist minister like King as a threat to national security? There were plenty of excuses, of course. As usual, King had refused police protection in Memphis, and his entourage never included armed bodyguards. ‘In a mystical sense’, writes Sides, ‘he believed non-violence was a more potent force for self-protection than any weapon’,

It seems that King could not have thought otherwise. Despite his great clarity of mind and pragmatism, he must have needed to remain in denial just to make himself go on against daunting odds. How else could he have got up every day to do such gruelling and frustrating work, always conscious that a large number of his fellow Americans, including powerful politicians and policemen, earnestly wished for his death, or at least his political destruction?

In the late winter and early spring of 1968, the odds were getting longer all the time. Realising that desegregation by itself wasn’t enough to end either racism or poverty, weakened by competition from the militant Black Power movement, and strained by bickering within his own organisation, King at the age of 39 was turning increasingly radical. ‘As he saw it, the central issue had shifted from the purely racial to the economic’, Sides writes. For King, America’s ‘structures and its practices, its very idea — was in serious trouble’. As King put it:

For years, I laboured with reforming existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now . . . I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.

This kind of statement was not what the liberal political establishment, including President Johnson, wanted to hear. Johnson felt betrayed by such talk, mainly because King had become a vocal critic of the Vietnam war, but also because his vanity was offended by King’s plan for a big, multi-racial poverty encampment in Washington to follow on the Memphis labour action. The President, Sides relates,

was personally offended by the Poor People’s Campaign; it seemed a direct indictment of his Great Society programmes, which had foundered as the war in Vietnam had escalated.

It is extraordinary to recall that the profoundly arrogant Johnson tried to stem the rioting that broke out after King was murdered by piously telling a national television audience that ‘violence must be denied its victory’ — this in a week in which 390 American soldiers died in Vietnam, along with countless enemy combatants, and the cumulative war dead of the US armed forces had reached 25,888.

It is similarly astonishing that Johnson, the greatest civil rights president since Lincoln, did not attend King’s funeral in Atlanta. The Secret Service had warned of threats against the President’s life, but, as Sides tells us, ‘the truth was that Johnson didn’t want to go to Martin Luther King’s funeral.’ As he explains,

The President could not quite bring himself to honour the man who’d so brazenly undermined him on Vietnam.

Ironically, it was lower-class, uneducated whites like James Earl Ray that King was attempting to embrace with his new class-conscious politics. Historically exploited by such fake populists as George Wallace, people like the Rays had been coached for generations to point their anger downward, against the beleaguered blacks, instead of upward, against the rich and the privileged. Ray and his siblings were Mississippi river-bottom poor, so marginal and neglected that some didn’t know their real names until they reached adulthood. ‘Throughout James Earl Ray’s life, the despair was panoramic’, writes Sides. Incredibly, his odious father thought Jimmy aimed too high in life, ‘had too much nerve for his own good’ and foolishly ‘tried to compete with all those bigshots’. Maybe he did have too much nerve, for Ray’s pathetic attempts at ‘self-improvement,’ from trying to learn how to make pornography, to taking dance and bartending lessons, to reading self-help tracts, only led to greater alienation and a greater craving for notoriety.

After the celebrated Scotland Yard detective Thomas Butler arrested Ray at Heathrow on 8 June — the same day as the funeral mass was held for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy and following a massive international manhunt that paradoxically showed the FBI at its best — investigators searched the culprit’s suitcase and found, among other things, two books on hypnosis, a guidebook to Rhodesia (where Ray imagined he might become a mercenary), and Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr Maxwell Maltz. It’s a shame no one ever gave Ray a copy of King’s Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? For Ray most emphatically chose chaos, while America, still hurting from the loss of its noblest dissident, still hasn’t taken Martin Luther King’s values to heart.

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