April 4, 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. died on April 4, 1968, when a single shot fired from a flophouse across the street felled him as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Writer Hampton Sides was six years old when King was murdered, a story he tells in his recent book of narrative nonfiction, Hellhound on His Trail. Sides was in Nashville on Saturday to discuss the book before a packed house at the inaugural event of Salon@615, a series of literary events sponsored by a partnership between the Nashville Public Library, Humanities Tennessee, and Barnes & Noble Booksellers.
King’s assassination touched off riots in cities all across the nation, as journalist and Chapter 16 contributor Clay Risen explains in his own book about the King murder, A Nation On Fire. And while the nation burned, King’s assassin slipped quietly away. Despite leaving behind every clue law enforcement could possibly need to solve the crime, James Earl Ray remained at large for more than two months before being arrested in London.
Some Americans are still convinced that James Earl Ray could not have been a lone assassin, that he must have been part of a government-sponsored conspiracy, but Hampton Sides is convinced Ray acted alone. As Sides told CBS News yesterday, “People find it very hard to believe that such a great man could be brought down by such a hollow and puny person. I think that we want to believe that it takes some kind of massive conspiracy of hundreds of people to bring down one person. But it’s just not the case.” (Read the full story here.)
King was a great man but he was also human, Sides insists in an essay in today’s Washington Post: “King was a human being: flawed, vulnerable, uncertain about the future, subject to appetites and buffeted by the extraordinary stresses of his position. His civil rights cause was holy, but he was a sinner. His place in the American canon seemed far from inevitable in the spring of 1968.”
To Sides, this human version of King is far more interesting—and far more important—than the saintly version of the hero who is honored every January: “We have no use for Hallmark heroes—airbrushed, Photoshopped, simon-pure. We need to see King in all his pathos, imperfection and messy ambiguity. In the end, that’s the only way we can relate to his struggles or appreciate his greatness. Through his moments of very human doubt and disappointment, King remained true to the message of nonviolence at a time when the world seemed on the brink of self-annihilation. The night before he was killed, while tornado warnings wailed outside, he spoke of the threats that were out there from ‘our sick white brothers.’ Yet he found a way to preach through his apprehensions, crying out triumphantly: ‘I’m not fearing any man!'” Read the full essay here.