By LCHS Principal, Ian McFeat
In early February, 1968, two sanitation workers from Memphis, Tennessee were killed when they were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck. At the time of the tragedy, the two black men were seeking shelter from the rain inside the vehicle, because they were not allowed to do so under the porches of the white homes where they collected refuse. The local government response to the deaths was barely human.
The city paid the equivalent of one month’s pay to the surviving families. Understandably, the sanitation workers were incensed. They demanded safe working conditions, fair wages, and the right to organize as a union. Memphis’s then newly elected mayor, Henry Loeb, refused to work with the employees. The result was that over 400 workers did not show up for work in a standoff that rotted and festered. For weeks on end, over 10,000 tons of garbage piled up in the streets of Memphis, and served as both a constant reminder of the injustice, and also as a metaphor for the larger social movements of the time. Garbage was simply not cleaned up.
This story and others are found on the pages of Hampton Side’s Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History. I finished the book in early January of this year, and I was unable to put it down, turning page after page of a vivid history brought to life. The book itself is divided into two parts. Part one, follows the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., while the second part of the book deals with the manhunt for his killer. I appreciated much about this piece of non-fiction, but mostly, it provided a texture and richness to both the surrounding social movements of the time, and the people who lived and died this history.
Sides masterfully contextualizes the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr. and his would be assassin, James Earl Ray. Sides paints a portrait of King that is fully human, revealing all of his flaws, his fears, his shortcomings, and the struggle inside the movement to make sense of a world in turmoil. The struggle within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was a palpable one, highlighted after the assassination of King. It was then that the movement splintered officially, but for years it had meandered as King drew strong connections between race, war, and poverty in the United States. The book simultaneously follows the social forces working against the civil rights movement, and in particular King, through the story of James Earl Ray.
MLK’s killer, James Earl Ray, was a social creation of his time, a man who stood against the forces of the civil rights movement, and for the segregationist policies of then Alabama Governor George Wallace. Ray shifted his identity numerous times, living under the aliases Erik Starvo Gault, John Willard, James Walton, and Ramon George Sneyd. Clearly, and in many ways, James Earl Ray was a blank page, a man without a rudder or sense of self. Through vivid details, Ray’s life revealed how madness is created from the bedrock of racism, poverty, ignorance and violence. Ray is shown as an empty man who was filled, fueled and created by hatred.
So, read this book, not for my pale and inadequate description of the narrative, rather, read it for today. The firestorm found in this history feels eerily similar to our ongoing climate in America, and our town, our school. We have already been presented with scenarios, both local and national that have grabbed our attention and asked for our perspectives. Sides has illuminated a history that can add depth to our discourse, and give us a varied, diverse, and broader understanding of ourselves.
Several weeks ago, I had an occasion to sit in on Mr. Yoder’s history class where he had a guest speaker, Jim Symons, come talk to students. Symons spoke about his time as a preacher in Northern California. He spoke to our students about watching King and SCLC marchers on television, and how the violent images against black people in Birmingham moved him to action. He then bought a ticket to Alabama, and walked with the movement at Selma. Symons relayed how afraid he was for his life, how he expected danger around each corner. Yet, Symons was compelled to act for others in the face of injustice. Symons left the comfort of his home and congregation to act in solidarity with others. What a lesson for all of us, and a history that propels us forward together.