David Garrow stopped short of the story in Bearing the Cross (1985). Taylor Branch stopped short of it in At Canaan's Edge (2006). And just this month, Michael Honey stopped short too in Going Down Jericho Road. The "story" is James Earl Ray and the events leading up to his murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis and the events that led to Ray's capture two months later.
Native Memphian Hampton Sides (Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder) isn't about to stop short. In his latest book project, Sides wants to pick up where the historians left off. A "big, multi-tentacled narrative" of "novelistic intrigue" is how Sides describes it. A "storyteller," not a historian, is how Sides describes himself.
But first, the setting: Memphis, 1968. As Sides said in a recent interview, he intends to do for the Bluff City what John Berendt did for Savannah in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and what Erik Larson did for Chicago in The Devil in the White City: raise the city to the level of a central character — a character among characters, including, in the year of King's assassination, the "King" himself, Elvis Presley, about to make his "Comeback Special"; artist William Eggleston, on his way to a major breakthrough in fine-art photography; the late Otis Redding, on the charts with "(Sittin' on the) Dock of the Bay"; and Fred Smith, back from piloting in Vietnam and with an idea to sell. Cybill Shepherd? She was an East High student with a ticket to Hollywood.
Those are some of Sides' proposed side characters, but the focus of his new book will be twofold: King, of course, at a turning point in his civil rights leadership, and Ray, a man no storyteller could ignore, though you can ignore the conspiracy theories surrounding Ray's acting or not acting alone. Sides — who thinks of those theories as "vaguely plausible" to "wacky" — is going largely to ignore them. The life of James Earl Ray is narrative enough: petty criminal, amphetamine addict, jailbird, escape artist, dabbler in the porn business, bounty hunter (possibly) when he heard of a price on King's head, then international fugitive in the biggest and costliest manhunt in American history. And no, Ray won't be King's "alleged" killer. To Sides, there's no shadow of a doubt.
It's a story Sides feels he was "born" to tell. His father was a member of the law firm that represented King during the sanitation strike that brought the civil rights leader to Memphis. Sides' grandfather's photography studio on Beale was damaged when the march King was leading, days before his death, erupted into violence.
It's also a story that will bring Sides to Memphis repeatedly after leaving the city 25 years ago. But it will mean moving fast. Sides expects his research to take a couple years — years that require interviewing eyewitnesses to the events in Memphis in April 1968. If you were an eyewitness too with a story to tell, contact Hampton Sides at P.O. Box 111497, Memphis TN 38111-1497.
Three Six Mafia said it: "It's hard out here for a pimp." "Here" is Memphis, and it may be equally hard for the city to go "green." Out of the 50 largest cities in the U.S., Memphis ranked #43 overall (tying with Detroit) in How Green Is Your City? (New Society Publishers), a study conducted by Warren Karlenzig and others of SustainLane, an Internet and media company empowering people, businesses, and government to work toward an ecologically sound, sustainable future.
It isn't total bad news, however. In the individual categories of tap-water quality and housing affordability, Memphis did better than all right. But in the categories of "local food and agriculture" (farmer's markets) and "LEED" ("green" buildings), the city bombed. Worse, as far as "city innovation," "energy/climate change policy," "green economy," and "knowledge base," the results weren't just bad, they were N/A. As in, nonexistent.
"We couldn't get any response from Memphis officials," Karlenzig said in a phone interview. Why? "I have no idea. My guess is that Memphis didn't have anyone whose job responsibility included addressing these issues." Asked, however, if Karlenzig was aware of the recent greenbelt proposal linking the inner city of Memphis with Shelby Farms, he expressed ignorance.
So, do Karlenzig and Memphis a favor before the next edition of How Green Is Your City?. If you're a local government official, go to www. sustainlane.us. Register and let Karlenzig and crew know about Memphis' "best practices" when it comes to the city's environmental initiatives.