(Soundbite of music)

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Earlier this year, writer Hampton Sides published a gripping and detailed account of the months leading up to Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. Sides book reconstructs the movements and activities of Kings confessed assassin, James Earl Ray, intercut with the story of King, the man Ray was stalking.

Hampton Sides is an editor-at-large for Outside magazine and author of the historical books "Ghost Soldiers" and "Blood and Thunder." I spoke to him in April about his book "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." I asked him about King's activities and his frame of mind in the final weeks of his life.

Mr. HAMPTON SIDES (Author, "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin"): This is a very different Martin Luther King than I think most of us are familiar with. He had been getting death threats for, really, his whole career, but in those last few weeks and months, he was getting more of them, and they were - the whole thing was intensifying.

He had developed enemies and lost a lot of his allies in Washington because of his criticism of the Vietnam War, and it felt like he was in danger of being outflanked by the black power movement. He was not sleeping very well. He was smoking. He was eating too much and gaining weight. His marriage with Coretta was unraveling. It was a very dark and very intense and desperate time for him.

And he had just hatched this very controversial Poor People's Campaign, which was, essentially, the idea was to build an enormous shantytown on the Mall in Washington, bring the poor people of - all over the country, not just African-Americans, but American Indians and people from Appalachia, from all walks of life to Washington to stage this sort of protest at the feet of Capitol Hill, to protest the conditions in the ghettos and systemic multi-generational poverty.

It was a very, very controversial and heavily criticized phase of the movement. King had essentially decided to shift his focus from civil rights to economic justice. And so, this was kind of where he was at when he got the phone call to come to Memphis to represent the garbage workers who had gone on strike.

DAVIES: Explain just a little bit about this sanitation workers' strike and why it brought Martin Luther King to Memphis and what sort of challenges that posed for him and his movement.

Mr. SIDES: Mm-hmm. His advisors thought that coming to Memphis was a real mistake, that it was quite a kind of left turn for him to be making, that he should be focused on this thing in Washington exclusively. But, you know, he couldn't ignore what was happening in Memphis. These guys were striking for better wages and for better conditions after a horrible accident in which two garbage workers had been ground up in a faulty hydraulic truck mechanism.

And when he came to Memphis, he decided he would lead a march down Beale Street, the historic avenue of the blues, and this was going to be it. He would leave Memphis, and he would go back to Washington and start recruiting for this bigger cause that he was pushing for.

DAVIES: But the march really went very wrong, didn't it?

Mr. SIDES: The march got taken over by black militants and high school students who were just out for a good time. And it turned violent and there was looting and smashing of windows, and the cops descended on everyone. And it was really a nightmare for Martin Luther King because his whole career, of course, was staked on nonviolence, and here he was appearing to be leading a violent march.

So this set up kind of the third act, which was he realized he had to come back to Memphis yet again to lead another march that would be peaceful. And it was that third appearance in Memphis that got him killed.

DAVIES: Now according to the evidence that the FBI later developed, we know that James Earl Ray had a map with places in Atlanta where Martin Luther King might have been found. So it's clear he had an interest in his movements. Where did he go to finally get the perch from which he would fire the fatal shot?

Mr. SIDES: Ray ended up checking into a flophouse on South Main, which was directly across from the Lorraine Motel. He was shown a room that faced towards Main Street, which would be the other side of the building, and he immediately said, no, thank you, I don't want that.

And then he was shown a room on the back side that faced the Lorraine, and he immediately took that and paid a week's rent, which makes me think, makes most of us think that he was thinking he'd be there a while, that he probably wasn't going to be doing an assassination from that room, that he was simply going to use that room as a perch to follow King's movements, thinking the lawyers are going to be working this out for weeks - for at least days, up to a week, until they would actually get to do this march. So I don't think he thought the assassination would take place there.

DAVIES: As it happened, his opportunity came that very day. Now, did he actually have a shot at King from the room that he rented?

Mr. SIDES: He did but he would've had to have leaned out over the window and expose himself. The angle is less than ideal. The only way he could really get a direct shot was to go down to the communal bathroom, which was this filthy room, you know, down the hall that had a direct shot if he stood in the bathtub.

After the assassination, the police found that the window in the bathroom had been jerked up about five inches. The screen had been jimmied from its groove, and there was a palm print on the wall and various people in the flophouse had heard a shot coming from that bathroom. So it became pretty clear that's where the shot came from.

DAVIES: So it appears that James Earl Ray took the rifle, which he had purchased recently, from his room down to the bathroom, where he could get a clear look at King, who, as it turned out, was lingering on his balcony. You also note that he realized that he needed some binoculars to really follow his movements. He went out and bought those.

When it came time to get a shot - it's interesting, he loaded only a single round into the weapon.

Mr. SIDES: Right.

DAVIES: How hard or easy a shot was this for a guy who obviously was not a trained marksman?

Mr. SIDES: You know, I've stood on the balcony and I've stood in the flophouse, which is now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum. It's an easy shot. It's about 200 feet. With a seven-power scope, which is what he had, it would appear to be about 30 feet. King's face would've almost completely filled the optical plane of the scope.

He was not a trained or, you know, professional marksman, but he had been in the Army and had fired that very caliber of weapon. And I don't think, you know, in the end, you know, the shot itself was actually fairly easy.

DAVIES: King was lingering on the balcony with some friends because they were about to go out to dinner. And you write that he was in a jovial and relaxed mood when he was hit by this shot, which caught him on the jaw and did terrible damage. The police were actually watching from a perch very nearby. Why?

Mr. SIDES: The Memphis police had been following King and his entourage everywhere, and also, a local black power group called the Invaders, who were in negotiations with King. So they had two black policemen in this firehouse that happened to face the Lorraine, looking at events through a peephole.

So, you know, there were people watching this from various vantage points. And, you know, when this shot rang out, these policemen all ran outside from the firehouse and ran towards the Lorraine, trying to figure out, you know, which direction did the shot come from.

DAVIES: And the firehouse was literally next door to the boarding house that Ray was perched in?

Mr. SIDES: It's across the street.

DAVIES: Okay.

Mr. SIDES: And again, is about, like, 200, maybe 250 feet away.

DAVIES: It does seem remarkable that with the police in a firehouse very nearby, that James Earl Ray was able to fire this shot, which was heard by lots of people, and then slip away. How close did he come to getting caught then?

Mr. SIDES: Within 30 seconds. He ran down the stairs and he took a left turn. He was running towards his car, which was a white Mustang that was parked on the street, when he saw some policemen who were gathered around that fire station.

And he had to do a very impulsive thing. On one level, you could say this was a really stupid act. He ditched the weapon. Everything needed to solve that case was in that bundle with the weapon and various other belongings that he had there. But if he hadn't done that, he would have been caught immediately with the weapon in his arms. So, you know, he really, he had to do that.

He jumped in the car and took off, and there were several witnesses there who saw the white Mustang as it took off heading north on Main Street. So, you know, he came probably within 30 seconds of getting caught.

DAVIES: We're talking with Hampton Sides about the assassination of Martin Luther King.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: Lets get back to our conversation with Hampton Sides. His book "Hellhound on His Trail chronicles the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the pursuit of his killer, James Earl Ray.

Well, for two months, he managed to evade the FBI, which despite Hoover's antipathy for King, was actively investigating this, throwing all of the resources they could into it. He finds his way to Canada because border crossings were easy there, and then he figured out how to get a passport and airline ticket out of the country.

James Earl Ray, after being captured in London, was extradited to the United States. He confessed and was sentenced to life in prison. And what I'm struck by at the end of the book is in some ways what a small guy he seemed. I mean, I'm reminded of the Hannah Arendt observation of the banality of evil.

And I'm just wondering, do you feel like you understand him? Is he like Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," some tortured soul or like Timothy McVeigh, a man who's, a young man whos ideologically driven? Do you feel like you get him?

Mr. SIDES: I get parts of him. You know, I think that there wasn't a single motivation so much as, you know, kind of an amalgam of sub-motivations that he kind of threw into a blender and stuck it on puree. You know, like, yes, he was a person who thought of himself as a businessman and as a hustler. And, yes, he was a racist. Yes, he had a history of mental illness accentuated by years of amphetamine use. Throw all those sort of sub-motivations into this blender and I think you begin to get some sense of how he could've done this and why he could've done this.

But in the end, you're right, it's really about the banality of evil. It's about how a very hollow person can bring down a great man. And, unfortunately, we've got a long and sordid history of people like that in this country.

DAVIES: Well Hampton Sides, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SIDES: Thanks for having me on the show.

DAVIES: Hampton Sides is the author of "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin."

Well close today with more of Martin Luther King, Jr.s I Have A Dream speech, and then we'll hear Aretha Franklin perform a version of the song she sang at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of Dr. Kings I Have A Dream speech)

Dr. KING: We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. KING: And this will be the day - this will be the day when all of God's children be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring. And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring.

(Soundbite of song, "My Country, 'tis of Thee")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer-songwriter, pianist): (Singing) My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty to thee I sing; land where my father died, land of the pilgrims' pride. From every, every, every mountain side, let freedom, freedom, let it ring.

Our fathers, God to thee, father, father of liberty, to thee I sing.

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