Musicologists still argue over which particular demon was on Robert Johnson’s mind when the blues giant wrote Hellhound on My Trail—booze, drugs, or Satan himself in hot pursuit of the soul Johnson promised him at that crossroads 120 km south of Memphis, Tenn. The uncertainty makes Hellhound on His Trail an apt title for Hampton Sides’s haunting tale of a later Memphis tragedy, the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King. The civil rights leader too had more than one pursuer after him. Right up to the moment James Earl Ray shot him, King would probably have said his worst enemy was J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI director’s decade-old campaign against a man he loathed wasn’t restricted to relentless wiretapping; the bureau sent King lurid recordings of the clergyman’s extramarital sex life along with a note suggesting suicide as the only way out. Yet once King was dead, the FBI turned on a dime, and entered one of its finest hours, a two-month manhunt that reverberated across the world, not least in Canada.
Ray was an utter nonentity, whose own sister declared she barely remembered him. Average height, weight, build, looks; can’t remember a thing he said or did: that sums up how most people recalled the career petty criminal. But Ray burned to be someone, to leave his mark; he studied hypnosis and obsessively read self-help books. He was a virulent racist, to be sure, but it was his desire to be acknowledged by the world, Sides argues, that prompted Ray to play the familiar American role of the petty taking down the great.
As for King, he was fast approaching a crossroads of his own at age 39. He was tired: since 1955, King had been jailed 18 times, his house had been firebombed, he had been stabbed by a deranged black woman, struck in the head by a rock, faced water cannons and police dogs. And his thinking was changing, from a purely civil rights focus to a broader concern with anti-poverty and anti-war politics, even while his message of non-violence was losing ground in an impatient African-American community where young radicals like Stokely Carmichael were ascendant.
On Feb. 1, 1968, two of Memphis’s ill-paid, non-union—and all black—garbagemen were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. It wasn’t a newsworthy event, certainly not for local media obsessed with the birth, just hours after the accident, of a royal heir: Lisa Marie, daughter of the city’s favourite son, Elvis Presley. But the deaths brought King to town to help in a union organizing drive. His plans, and where he would be staying, were openly detailed in the press. Ray, who had been stalking his prey for some time, took a room in a nearby flophouse that offered a clear view of King’s motel. At 6:01 p.m., April 4, as King stood on the balcony of his second-floor room, joking with supporters below, Ray shot him with a high-powered rifle.
Hoover dedicated his bureau to the pursuit of the killer. (Perhaps, as U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark later remarked, the FBI director “was afraid people were going to think he did it.”) Even so, as riots that caused 40 deaths broke out in 100 cities, Ray—at times, by Sides’s calculations, just minutes ahead of the expanding police perimeter—made it to the Canadian border at Windsor, Ont. Officials waved him across, occasioning the first of Sides’s several sardonic references to “wholesome, trusting” Canada.
Settling in Toronto, Ray, 40, started trolling newspapers for the names of boys born in Toronto four decades earlier. He found two still living in the city, and telephoned them, pretending to be a passport official in Ottawa, to ask if they had passports. Both men spoke freely to him—wholesome, trusting Canada—and Ray began working on a convoluted plan to somehow turn the one who had a passport into the guarantor of the other, in whose name Ray would acquire a false passport. But there was no need for all that trouble. At a travel agency, Ray was stunned to find out a Canadian in a hurry could always just fill out a Statutory Declaration in Lieu of Guarantor.
On the strength of his oath, Ottawa mailed Ray a passport that took him to London. There, the FBI, with significant help from the RCMP and Scotland Yard, finally caught up with him, just a day before he would have been safe in white-ruled Rhodesia. When Canadians later learned how Ray had so easily gamed the system, the nobody who murdered an icon and set his nation on fire also became the man who almost single-handedly changed Canada’s passport regulations.