Hellhound: MLK’s assassin


Last month National Public Radio did an excellent piece on Hampton Sides’ new book Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, a book which discusses the intricacies behind the relationship between James Earl Ray and Martin Luther King Jr.

The story in its entirety can be found here.

In the NPR story, NPR’s Scott Smith’s first question is: how can a “dimwitted fiend” bring down a genuine hero? Such is a great question; both the physical and mental implications of plotting and executing the death of such a heroic figure is baffling, especially when compared to the (drastically different) methods for change implemented by both Gandhi and King.

And yet, the similarities between Gandhi and King’s nonviolent resistance campaigns and Ray’s ultra-violent campaign for murder do exist. While I am not implying that the three men shared ideologies or ultimate goals for humanity, they did share some methodologies. For example, let us examine some of the practices implemented by James Earl Ray prior to murder Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Research: Sides discusses how one during his time in prison and afterward — before Ray began “stalking” MLK — he exerted much of his time towards studying John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In doing this, Ray shows that he had serious intentions, in that he hoped to in some way emulate one of the most effective and notorious murders of all time. MLK and Gandhi, in preparing their own nonviolent resistance campaigns, also did thorough research not only of the history of the subject matter, but of all other outlets as well. After the Himalayan Miscalculation, Gandhi learned that a lack of research (even in the participants of a nonviolence resistance campaign, which Gandhi seemed to think he could overlook) could destroy an entire campaign.
  • Going to the area of the problem: While Gandhi and MLK both understood the importance of going right to the area of the problem (Gandhi’s Salt March, MLK’s demonstrations in Washington DC), Ray also knew that in order to achieve his goal (as morbid as that goal may be), he needed to move to Atlanta, where MLK was based. Ray continued to follow MLK to various parts of the country, eventually  and in fact following him to various areas of the country, including Memphis, where MLK was eventually killed at the hands of Ray.
  • Mental preparation: Sides says that Ray was “gathering focus and concentration and energy on this idea [of killing MLK],” a channeling of energies that sounds eerily similar to the praying and meditation that Gandhi and King implement before acts of nonviolent resistance. While, of course, the drastic difference between the two nonviolent resistance leaders and Ray is that the channeling practiced by Gandhi and King were implemented in helpful and altruistic ways, the consistency between how all three men need to hone their mental focuses before acting courageously cannot be overlooked.

While there are some similarities evident in both the violent campaign of Ray and MLK / Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance campaigns, there are some poignant differences that create a definite divide between those who advocate for positive change and those who advocate for negative change. The following traits of Ray’s prepartion for murder show just how acutely different he was from Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi in implementing his “activism.”

  • Racism: In a Sydney Morning Herald article from April 6, 2002, Ronald Denton Wilson (who believes his father, Henry Clay Wilson, was responsible for MLK’s death) says that MLK’s assissination “wasn’t a racist thing; he [Henry Clay Wilson] thought Martin Luther King was connected with communism, and he wanted to get him out of the way.” Sides, however, believes differently; he not only says that Ray is responsible for MLK’s death, but he also says the murder is a resulted of deep-rooted racism. This sort of hatred and acceptance would not be tolerated under the eyes of Gandhi or King, as MLK was an (obvious) advocate for anti-racism, and Gandhi — who dedicated part of his life to ending Hindu and Muslim affairs — would did not agree with violent differences based on race or religion.
  • Cowardice: A huge element in the nonviolent resistance campaigns of both Gandhi and King is the element of bravery; in fact, Gandhi believed that one should fight violently before he should away like a coward, which shows how seriously he condemns a coward. For Ray to hide and run away from the police for months after the murder of MLK, it shows his cowardly tendencies, which differentiates him greatly from any advocate for nonviolence, or any effective activist anywhere.
  • Secrecy: while the main achievement goals in preparing for a nonviolence campaign often revolve around accumulating media attention, Ray kept his plans mostly secret. Even though Sides says Ray bragged about his plans to kill MLK while Ray was still in prison, after being released and beginning the actual stages of planning MLK’s death, Ray was ultimately quiet. To our knowledge, he did not try to garner a group of supporters to help him implement the murder, but rather connived and planned in secret. This secret planning is the exact opposite of what both Gandhi and King did, as their main objective was to draw attention to their causes, not hide away from the issues at hand.

Comparing  cold-blooded murderer to two of history’s greatest heroes is abysmal; I realize this. But in examining the three men mostly relevant in MLK’s death (MLK himself, one of MLK’s most influential figures of history, Gandhi, and the man who killed MLK), it is still interesting to examine the different tactics practiced.


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