Sunday, 19 September 2010

Hellhound on His Trail

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail

"Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin" is a book by the historian Hampton Sides, documenting the final days in the life of Martin Luther King, and the way in which is path converged with the hellhound, deliberately out to destroy him - James Earl Ray.

Ray escaped from prison and created a new identity for himself as Eric Starvo Galt, and was convinced of his mission to kill King. The book is also the story of King worn down by the pressure of the campaign for equal rights for blacks, and seeking to continue his struggle from the legal right to equality towards moves against economic discrimination. The story follows both Ray and King as they cross the country, Ray stalking king, until the moment on 4 April 1968 at a Memphis hotel, when the Ray booked a room at a motel overlooking King's hotel balcony, and finally caught up with his prey. Nationwide riots were sparked by the assassination, followed by the largest manhunt in American history.

The story also story unfolds against the larger backdrop of the Civil Rights movement in America. It takes its title from the Robert Johnson blues song, and is a taut story, cutting back and forth between the Martin Luther King and Ray, calling himself in 1968, Eric Starvo Galt.. These two parts to the story were presented effectively in the BBC Radio 4 "Book of the Week" which used two voices to read the different narratives, cutting between the two to effective dramatic effect.

After the shooting, Ray fled from the scene, dumping his rifle, then driving off in his Mustang, before abandoning the vehicle, and making his way by train to Canada. There he boarded in a guest house, and searched back copies of the newspaper's archive for birth records for a false identity. Having established a living individual did not have a passport, he first obtained a copy of a birth certificate, and used that to obtain a passport with a photograph of himself. From there he flew first the Portugal, and then to London, from where he planned to fly to Ian Smith's apartheid Rhodesia and work as a mercenary.

Yet ironically, the same FBI machinery which had been targeted at surveillance on Martin Luther King (because Herbert Hoover mistrusted King as a dangerous tool for communists), was instrumental in tracking down Ray. His gun was located, his fingerprints found in the central fingerprint registry that had been established - within a few days, over 500 prints had been checked, then his located, and his identity as a former prisoner, complete with photographic record, established. Meanwhile, the other end of his route to the railway, and to Canada had been established, and a search for recent passport applications turned up trumps. With better photographic material, and his passport tracking his flights, the FBI had rapidly established his route to London. The international liaisons were mobilised, and Scotland Yard issued a description and photograph in the police gazette, notified guest houses and rooming houses, and all port authorities. It was as he was leaving from Heathrow that Ray was apprehended, initially arrested on the count of carrying an unregistered hand gun and having a false passport. It was enough to keep him until he was repatriated to the US, where he was given a life sentence. He died in 1998.

The author Hampton Sides noted that:

After King's assassination, Robert Kennedy tried to take up his mantle. I think he felt that someone needed to pick up that standard. And he was the only one who actively supported the Poor People's Campaign. Following the riots after King's assassination, Kennedy went to the inner cities and tried to figure out how to rebuild them.

A child at the time, in an interview he recalled:

I remember being scared. I remember my parents being scared. I remember radio and television voices - people were terrified that the city was just going to rip apart. I remember the next day my parents yanked me out of school and we left the city for three days, because there was a fear that there would be major riots. There wasn't a major riot - partly because the National Guard was already there clamping down on things. Mainly, I remember feeling that it was the first time I was aware of history happening, feeling the weight of history, the glare of it on my home town.

What is forgotten about Kings--often willfully--is that he was an advocate for racial and economic justice. From a speech he gave to striking sanitation workers in Memphis on March 18, 1968:

If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you're commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth
and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.

You are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. I need not remind you that this is the plight of our people all over America..

Now the problem isn't only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working everyday? They are making wages so low that they can not begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.

I will hear America through her historians years and years to come saying, "We built gigantic buildings to kiss the sky. We build gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our airplanes we were able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths."

But it seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, "even though you've done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security, and you didn't provide for them. So you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness."

So in Memphis we have begun. We are saying, "Now is the time." Get the word across to everybody in power in this town that now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God's children, now is the time to make the real promises of democracy. Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God's children, now is the time for city hall to take a position for that which is just and honest. Now is the time for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. Now is the time.

It is a message which still resonates and needs to be heard today, not just in America, but in all the richer countries of the world, including our own Island.


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