MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Author Hampton Sides wasn’t sure about the guy who said he had an interesting archive all about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
And amateur archivist Vince Hughes thought Sides might be just another one of those wing nuts with a conspiracy theory to shop.
Sides was already well into his research for a book, using all the usual historical sources when he finally called Hughes. He found an astounding collection that helped turn his new book, “Hellhound on His Trail” into something special.
Though King’s life and death are well-tilled soil for historians, Sides took a new approach, crafting a compelling and unique narrative history of the stalking of King and the ensuing manhunt for his killer.
It’s as much a thriller as it is a history book, and the compulsive story races along like a fugitive on the lam. And the book is rapidly climbing best-seller lists, debuting next week at No. 6 on The New York Times list of best-sellers, according to publisher Doubleday.
Hughes’ collection was a mostly unmined vein of historical detail that truly brought his book — and the petty-criminal-turned-assassin James Earl Ray — to life.
Take, for example, the roll of film Hughes had from the evening of April 4, 1968, the day King was shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The iconic picture of King’s entourage pointing in the direction of the bullet is memorable, but the rest of the roll had never been published.
The first picture shot by a South African photographer covering King’s visit was of the civil rights leader as he stepped onto the balcony. The next 12 minutes play out frame by frame.
“Then, finally, you get to the picture of all the guys pointing,” Sides said. “So you can almost reconstruct the narrative of what was going on. You can see firemen coming in from the fire station, jumping over the retaining wall. You can see the weather. You can see puddles of rain. You can see all these little gritty details that come out in the book.”
There was so much new material in the archive — Hughes estimates he has 20,000 documents, recordings, photographs and other material — Sides was overwhelmed. The pair eventually agreed that the author would continue writing his book at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., and call Hughes for help along the way.
When Sides needed more information about Ray’s attempts to secure a false identity while on the run in Toronto, he asked Hughes, “Do you have anything on that?’’
And Hughes replied, “Have I ever! Here’s the picture that was taken at this photographic studio. Here’s the other photograph that wasn’t used. Look at what he’s wearing. Look at those glasses. Those are fake glasses, those horn-rimmed glasses. He’s trying out a new look.”
Hughes said Sides took all those loose details and turned them into something that feels real.
“He actually takes you and puts you in the middle of it,” Hughes said. “When you’re reading the book, you’re there ... You really feel as though it’s surrounding you. I’m kind of proud some of that material came from my collection. I take a little sense of pride.”
King’s life is among the most examined. The life of Ray, however, remains murky. Ray lied a lot, Sides said, and enjoyed leading authorities down false trails.
Sides’ goal was to put aside opinion and tell the story of how Ray arrived at that rooming house across from King’s balcony, then how he eluded one of the largest manhunts surrounding a single crime in U.S. history.
“The King assassination literature tends to be dominated by books that either advance or try to debunk various conspiracy theories,’’ Sides said. “I think that’s the trap that much of the literature falls into. Did he do it? Did he not do it? Was the FBI involved? Just kind of sifting the charges and the countercharges. But there are no pure narratives about what happened with James Earl Ray and this event that I know of. You’re just telling the story.’’
It was a story Sides knew well. The assassination of King and the aftermath was one of Sides’ most prominent childhood memories growing up in Memphis. His father was a lawyer at the firm that represented King in his fight to put on a march in support of the city’s striking garbage workers.
During a recent interview near the Lorraine on South Main Street, the busy road Ray used to make his getaway, Sides pointed out historical spots in the neighborhood and talked about a city he clearly loves. It was a dark time and, even at the age of 6, Sides could feel the fear in Memphis.
“I do remember this feeling that the city might rip apart,” Sides said. “So as a historian, someone who’s become a narrative historian, it was only natural that I would want to come back to this time and this place where I first became aware of history.”
Hughes also experienced that history. He was a Memphis Police Department dispatcher on duty when King was killed. He kept a copy of the radio tape from that night as a curio. In time, he decided to transfer it to CD to preserve it. A friend heard about what he was doing.
“He gave me what he had and I started crawling through people’s attics and going down to locations here, there and yon, gathering all sorts of documents and trying to bring all the investigative material to one place,” Hughes said.
He has a set of the nearly unredacted FBI case file, as well as those for investigations by Scotland Yard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Many pieces in the collection can be found nowhere else.
And the best part for Sides was that almost no one had seen the archive. Hughes, a history buff, is protective of his collection.
“You can probably count the number of people on both hands maybe,” Hughes said. “I’m really trying to stay away from the folks that are looking for conspiracy and those kinds of things ... But serious researchers — I’m happy to make it available to them.”
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