:: Article

Killer on the Road

By Max Dunbar.


Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, Hampton Sides, Allen Lane 2010

There’s a killer on the road

His brain is squirming like a toad

Take a long holiday

Let your children play

– The Doors, ‘Riders on the Storm’

The garbagemen of ’68-era Memphis probably had one of the worst jobs for their time. They were paid less than a hundred dollars a week, and had no benefits or union rights; there were no wheelie bins, so the walking buzzards had to drag trash to their vans. Binbags had no drawstrings, so at the end of a ten-hour shift they had to strip down before entering their home, to protect their families from the accumulated stench of rotted dairy, meat juice, turned fruit, and a thousand other sour and ugly things that made up the waste product of the American south.

The president of Dr Martin Luther King’s university, Dr Benjamin Elijah Mays, said of King that: ‘He believed especially that he was sent to champion the cause of the man furthest down. He would probably say that if death had to come, there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors.’ By February ’68, King’s civil rights movement had made radical gains. Thanks to his work, antidiscrimination and desegregation were now enforced in law. He was not satisfied. What good was racial equality without economic justice? What was the point of integrated lunch counters when people couldn’t afford to eat?

King likened the situation to a lifelong prisoner who is released from jail after the warden discovers that the man was falsely accused all along. ‘Go ahead, you’re free now,’ the jailer says. But the prisoner has no job skills, no prospects, and the jailer doesn’t think to give him money for the bus fare into town.

A Memphis garbageman’s strike was triggered when two binmen were crushed in the hydraulic ram on the back of their own truck. King saw their struggle as the beginning of a ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ that would end in a great nonviolent march on Washington in support of workers’ rights. He travelled to Memphis and declared solidarity with the strikers. A demonstration co-opted by the violent Invaders protest group turned a peaceful protest into a chaotic riot. FBI agents, under the command of the deranged J. Edgar Hoover, were trying to smear King as a communist degenerate. Throughout these early chapters, there is a sense that King knew what was coming; it is easy to say this in hindsight, but whether he saw it or not, the fact is that on an early evening outside the Lorraine Motel, King’s hellhound caught up with him.

Sides weaves King’s narrative with that of James Earl Ray, an escaped convict who ricochets aimlessly and namelessly all over Mexico and the United States. ‘No matter where he was,’ Sides writes, ‘his radar for sleaze remained remarkably acute’; although Ray generally dressed in a suit, he stuck to rented rooms in dying red light districts and panhandle alleys, places of American mediocrity with mildewed shower curtains and rockburned duvets and peeling advertisements for correspondence courses and five bucks extra for a heating ring. King’s assassin looked entirely average, with a habit of sliding out of people’s memories; Sides’s portrayal reminded me of Walter O’Dim, the quasi-immortal villain of Stephen King’s novels, his dusty bootheels clicking down the highways of hiding:

His pockets were stuffed with fifty different kinds of conflicting literature – pamphlets for all seasons, rhetoric for all reasons. When this man handed you a tract you took it no matter what the subject: the dangers of atomic power plants, the role played by the International Jewish Cartel in the overthrow of friendly governments, the CIA-Contra-cocaine connection, the farm workers’ unions, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (If You Can Answer These Ten Questions ‘Yes’, You Have Been SAVED!) the Blacks for Militant Equality, the Kode of the Klan. He had them all, and more, too.

With a journalist’s detachment and the richness of style displayed by a great American novelist, Sides focuses on story and detail rather than diagnosis. (When his crimes are uncovered, Iago says: ‘Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word’ – and he doesn’t.) Ray is white trash who works alone and displays no motivations other than an early fascination with Hitler and the standard gutter racism of white men with a chip on their shoulder. In a quotation featured on the press release accompanying my copy, Sides expanded on America’s ‘sordid tradition of violence’:

It’s the dark flipside of our extraordinary freedoms: in America, if some wing-nut doesn’t like some public figure, he feels perfectly free to pick up a gun and blast away… Ray is just one in a long line of American nobodies who’ve left their permanent stain on our history. Yes, he came from a desperately poor background, he was emotionally disturbed, he was a racist, he was an amphetamine junkie. But what really motivated him, I’m convinced, was a desire for recognition and notoriety. He wanted the world to know he existed.

In the early hours of November 5, 2008, I watched John McCain’s graceful concession speech, in which he made a point of referring to the great milestone of progress represented by his opponent’s victory. When he said this, his audience booed and shouted. Later, talking to an American friend, I found her delight and pride tempered by a sense of foreboding: ‘They’re gonna get in their pickup trucks and drive straight to Chicago.’ Today, with the Republican Party increasingly co-opted by its Palinite splinter group, a demented and conspiratorial conservative media, and a resurgence in white supremacist terror, it is clear that King’s hellhound is again on the trail – like the creature in Stephen Dobyns’s ‘Pursuit’, ‘the other ever closer, not really hurrying or out of breath, teasing its kill.’


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 13th, 2010.