During the 1960s and following I was involved in the civil rights movement. While prejudice and bigotry were omnipresent in the United States, I had to see it in its raw form in the South to finally realize how I had overlooked it even as it surrounded me in the Middle West.
I got to know the Martin Luther King family and I spoke at their church in Atlanta. "Daddy King" was a personal favorite. He was an old-style Baptist preacher, and though serving a church of beloved parishioners in central Atlanta, there was always a little of the rural South in his preaching. He was at the same time both a humble man and a man of strong presence and conviction. To me, it was easy to see where his son got his speaking skills and his love for fairness and justice. Someday a book and perhaps a movie will be made about the influential and interesting life of the Rev. Martin Luther King, SR.
All this was brought back to me with the recent publication of the book, HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL by Hampton Sides. It covers the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, and the escape wanderings of his killer, James Earl Ray. While we know much about King and his leadership in the fight for civil rights, less is known about the "grim back story" of Ray. We are also given information about J. Edgar Hoover's unrelenting and horrible attacks on King. It is a sad, sad chapter in the history of the FBI that its long-time director, Hoover, would stoop so low and exhibit so much personal bigotry.
Too many of us think that the life and efforts of Martin Luther King have lessened the level of prejudice and bigotry in America. One only has to listen and read today's shocking expressions by bigots who, like all their predecessors, would deny any prejudice. "Some of my best friends are Negroes" was a sure sign of bigotry when expressed following some verbal attack on minorities. Perhaps today that is not expressed in the same way, but there is rampant bigotry of the worst kind that bubbles up all over the United States. Laws are being past, organizations are being formed, shock radio hosts yell out, a major political party coddles shameful groups, and there is a multitude of evidence that bigotry and racial or immigrant hatred have not gone away. You don't have to extend your reading too far afield to find it.
In his excellent review in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on April 25th of HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL, Mike Fischer, a Milwaukee writer and lawyer makes some pertinent comments. In commenting on the book's dealing with whether the FBI helped James Earl Ray in the killing of Martin Luther King, or whether someone else abetted the crime, Fischer ends his review this way:
"...it ultimately doesn't matter much whether Ray had help. The society that spawned and encouraged him is still with us, forty-plus years down the line."