Hampton Sides: Background Check

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"I was still trying to figure out what the hell I was gonna do," author Hampton Sides said when we talked recently.

It was three years ago when we last talked, and back then, Sides was about to embark on the research for his next book.

"I was having to ask: How am I to make a dent in the literature that exists on this subject?"

The subject is the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The site of that killing was Sides' hometown, Memphis. And three years ago, Sides was just starting on his reconstruction of the events leading up to and following April 4, 1968. This week, that book finally hits stores. It's called Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin (Doubleday).

Sides continued:

I floundered, frankly, because there's so much of this story, so many strains of it, advancing or debunking different conspiracy theories. So much official literature, such as the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which is 13 volumes. Plus, the morass of James Earl Ray's own statements. Then I met a man named Vince Hughes.

I'd been told I needed to see a guy named Vince. And I thought, Well, that doesn't sound too promising ... some guy named Vince. Well, I met him in a secured area in a back room of a back room of the Germantown Public Library. He let me look at some things on his computer, and I began to realize that he has a world-class, THE world-class, preeminent repository of information on the King assassination.

We became friends, because I realized he was in it for all the right reasons: scholarly, independent. He's not advancing any particular angle on the assassination. He's digitized hundreds of thousands of things: crime-scene information, autopsy reports, Scotland Yard documents.

We became friends. He said he was willing to help me. I didn't know how logistically and physically to deal with the stuff. Vince is not a library. I couldn't just "check in." So he said, "Why don't you do this? When you're working on the story and you need something, ask me if I have something on it."

So, I'd say, for example, "Vince, I'm in Toronto now, and there's this point in the story where Ray is thinking about robbing a grocery store. Do you have anything on that?" And he'd say, "Have I got anything on THAT?" This GIANT document would come through on my e-mail ... like, the lights in my house would dim; like, 200 pages of stuff on that incident alone! Photographs, all the witnesses interviewed. And I'd be like: Wow, what a godsend. Everybody needs a guy named Vince. And thank God I found mine.

Who IS Vince Hughes?
He's a retired Memphis policeman. He was the dispatcher on duty that night in April when King was killed. He issued the first information: a guy seen leaving the scene of the crime in a white Mustang.

I think that event has haunted Vince, touched him. I hesitate to say "haunt." He's obsessed with the King case, but he's not an obsessive. He's very down to earth, grounded. History touched him in a very direct way. Eventually, he wants to open up his collection to anyone with legitimate interests, but mine is the first book to use it.

It's not like I completely relied on him. But by far, once I got to the hunt for James Earl Ray, the overwhelming majority of the material came from Vince. It's stuff I could have found, but when it's all in one place, it sure makes things a lot easier.

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What do we learn in "Hellhound" that may be new to readers?
There's no bombshell. Nothing crazy about J. Edgar Hoover being in the flophouse on South Main in Memphis with a gun. But thanks to Vince and a lot of other stuff I found, there's an accumulation of little details about where Ray went, what he was wearing, the weather ... an accretion of novelistic detail that for the first time allows us to see the multistranded narrative.

What do you make of James Earl Ray?
He's an ideal subject. In narrative terms, he's the gift that keeps on giving. He keeps making left turns. You can't predict what he's going to do ... such a stew of quirks, odd influences, impulses, especially in his Los Angeles days, when he's trying to figure it all out. He gets into bartending, locksmithing. He gets a nose job. He gets into hypnosis, the George Wallace presidential campaign. There's no one motivation. It's like he's got numerous submotivations that he throws into a blender — a blender that he flips to "puree." Good luck trying to figure out what he created in that blender.

You don't go in for the conspiracy theories surrounding this case?
Growing up in Memphis, I almost by osmosis believed that Ray must have been part of a larger conspiracy. Maybe he was a patsy. Maybe he was framed. There just had to be something larger afoot. You hear a story enough times, it must be true. And as a journalist, I suppose I wanted to believe there was a conspiracy, because, frankly, it's a "sexier" story — if I could prove it.

But as you get into the case, at least as I got into the case, I came to the conclusion that Ray was the triggerman. But I'm not emotionally invested in the idea that Ray had to have been working alone. Some anti-conspiracists have taken that position: case closed, no doubt Ray was the lone guy. Well, there's a lot of unanswered questions in this case, parts of this story that are not absolutely clear.

For example, what Ray was doing in New Orleans or Toronto. I take the middle road: Yeah, Ray did it. He was there in the Memphis flophouse. He pulled the trigger. But he might have had some help. He probably did have some help. Mostly, crude help along the way.

The FBI certainly thought his brothers might have been in on it somehow. The FBI investigated the possibility. For example, the day before Ray broke out of prison in Missouri in '67, his brother John visited him. And John Ray claims in a book that he came down and met James Earl Ray in a bar in West Memphis the day before the assassination.

Now, the Ray brothers lied all the time. If they started telling the truth now, who would believe them? But there's no question Ray trusted his brothers, and on some level they were protecting him.

In "Hellhound," you never isolate the moment when Ray decided to kill King.
It's the most frustrating part of writing a book like this. You want to know the motivation, because that's what separates "us" from "them" — assassins. All of us have stuff we don't like in society, the way it's working — politicians, social trends. But all of us don't buy a high-power rifle and take aim.

I wish I understood that about Ray. I can't say I ever came to understand that moment, where Ray really started stalking King.

But in 1968, on March 17th, in Los Angeles, when King gave some talks, drumming up support for his Poor People's Campaign, King was just a few miles away from where Ray was staying. All of a sudden, Ray said he was leaving Los Angeles and filled out a change-of-address card. He was moving to Atlanta. Ray had no connection to Atlanta. He'd never been there. But here he is moving to King's hometown.

I think it was something King said in one of those speeches in Los Angeles that set Ray off, that got him thinking ... Wallace was running for president; Ray could help the Wallace campaign in some way.

While a self-help book was helping Ray.
You know, I hate pop psychology. I hate trying to jump inside the head of someone. You can't really understand why people do what they do. But Ray was reading a lot of self-help books. In particular, something called Psycho-cybernetics, which I read cover to cover. I dare you to read it!

That book makes the same point over and over: You've got to have a target to aim at. You can take that literally. Or you can take that figuratively. But when they captured Ray in London, they found that book all dog-eared and marked up. You know, there are a lot of lost souls out there who gravitate to anything to get some advice. This book could have been pretty influential.

What was it like for you to write about your hometown, Memphis?
I grew up hearing things from my parents, the way things were. There's all this received wisdom. But when you get into the documents about King's assassination, you realize you don't know your hometown at all. I was 6 when King was killed. All this stuff filtered through: faulty memory, family lore. I found it fascinating to relearn my city's history.

Growing up, did the King assassination seem like something far removed from your East Memphis neighborhood?
I was too young to remember much. But it was the first time I was consciously aware of history happening. Bearing down on my home. Now that I'm a historian, it was interesting to go back to the first time I became aware, on a visceral level, of history happening.

At the time, I didn't know what "it" was, what King was about, what the sanitation workers' strike was about. I remember people being scared. People thought we were going to descend into a race riot. My family left town for a day. In all those senses, the events did feel close to home.

You're not only embarking on a book tour with "Hellhound on His Trail." There's a documentary called "Roads to Memphis" to air May 3rd on the PBS series "American Experience."
Unusual thing. The director of Roads to Memphis is Stephen Ives. He did a documentary about Kit Carson, the subject of my book Blood and Thunder. We got to be friends. He asked what I was doing, and he decided to do a doc in tandem with Hellhound. But the documentary is its own thing.

I'd send Stephen stuff I wrote. We interviewed people together for the film. I even sat on the set and interviewed people from behind the camera. We like and trust each other.

And there's a film version of "Hellhound" in the works?
The book has been optioned, and the screenplay's by Mark Bowden, who wrote Blackhawk Down. That's all I can tell you. I can't tell you if the film project is going to proceed. Nothing's guaranteed in that business.

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