Hampton Sides was just six years old in April of 1968. His father, a Memphis lawyer worked for the law firm that was representing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the striking Memphis sanitation workers he was in town to help.
For his latest work, Sides, who is now best known to readers for his critically acclaimed “Blood and Thunder” and “Ghost Soldiers,” opted to return to his childhood and the assassination that forever linked MLK and Memphis.
In a note to readers that opens “Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin” (Doubleday, $28.95), Sides writes: “All writers sooner or later go back to the place where they come from.”
“I started out to write this because, on some level, I wanted to expiate Memphis of its sins,” Sides tells Intel. “I always kind of felt that this was our fault. After the assassination, Time magazine described us as ‘a decaying backwater.’ Many people believed that James Earl Ray was from Memphis. But Ray had been stalking King for weeks. It was almost an accident that it happened in Memphis.”
While a small forest of books dedicated to this topic already line book shop shelves and libraries, Sides’ gripping page-turner is the first to take an in-depth look at the assassination itself and the international manhunt that followed.
In her review, Atlanta magazine book editor Teresa Weaver calls “Hellhound” a “beautfully written non-fiction thriller.”
Sides spent a total of four years, two writing and two spent combing through FBI files, conducting interviews and poring over pictures to create the impressively researched tome.
“One of the great ironies I discovered was that even though J. Edgar Hoover hated King, his FBI did not drag its feet on this case,” explains Sides. “Once you get into those files, you realize they turned over every stone. It was thrilling in a way. They did incredibly good work solving the case.”
Sides’ perspective on Ray also changed over the course of researching “Hellhound.”
“I went into this thinking Ray was just a hillbilly, a bumpkin. He was a lot craftier and cunning than I thought.”
In his book, Sides also de-deifies King, down to interviewing alleged mistress Georgia Davis Powers.
“I don’t spend a lot of time on it,” he says. “And only facts that could be verified made it into the book. I tried to humanize King. He was full of vulnerabilities and insecurities. By 1968, he wasn’t sleeping, he was drinking, his marriage was in trouble and these trysts were happening. What he was doing in Memphis was controversial and complicated. Many of the books about King suffer from a sainthood aspect. There’s a halo glow. I wanted to paint him warts and all. But I came away from this book with more awe for him than when I started.”