I read this because there is presently a fugitive at large in Pennsylvania, in the Pocono Mountains where I spent a happy weekend last summer. On September 12, not a month after my idyllic vacation, two Pennsylvania state police officers were shot in the town of Blooming Grove. Bryon Dickson died. Police tentatively identified Eric Frein as the shooter, and they have been seeking him since then. As many as 1000 officers have participated in the chase, but Frein has not been caught. (Update – according to Wikipedia, Frein was captured on the night of October 30, 2014 at an abandoned airport.)
Are there similarities between this situation and the hunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968? Hampton Sides delved into the Ray manhunt for highly personal reasons – he grew up in Memphis, where King died when Sides was six years old. His respect for King and his sorrow over the assassination resonate throughout the book.
First, the differences. Ray shot King in a city, then followed a relatively sophisticated plan that got him to Canada in about a week. It would appear that Frein expected to “hole up” in the relative wilderness of Pennsylvania, and he seems to have the skills to do so. Ray had minimal education and a serious criminal record. Ray shot a man of international reputation who had repeatedly been offered police protection, but Frein’s targets were unknown police officers who weren’t expecting trouble.
Similarities? Each was supported or encouraged by a social movement. Racism and segregationism fueled Ray’s hatred of King. Frein is identified as a “survivalist” and a hater of police authority. Sides raises questions about presidential candidate George Wallace’s hateful, ranting rhetoric. Was Wallace responsible for inciting Ray to violence? I wonder if there is an individual behind Frein’s hostility to police. Or is it based on personal experience?
Further comparisons aren’t worthwhile, since so little is known about Frein.
Even after studying of mountains of documentation, Sides is at a loss to “explain” James Earl Ray. A prison doctor labeled him mentally ill. (The system offered no treatment. His reliance on amphetamines may have been “self medication”.) He was uneducated but canny, generally “streetwise” and able to make and follow a plan. He was a fugitive at the time he shot King, having escaped from a high security prison which had few jailbreaks. (He was not the object of an interstate pursuit.)
Ironically, at the time of this death, King was shifting his emphasis from racial issues to what we would now refer to as “economic justice”. His planned “Poor People’s March” on Washington was intended to include ALL the suffering poor. James Earl Ray was one of these – uneducated, unhealthy, and unlikely ever to scramble into the middle class.
The other irony is that the hunt for Ray was the responsibility of J Edgar Hoover, long term director of the FBI. He detested King and engaged in “dirty tricks” designed to sabotage him as a leader and in his personal life. But when King died on his watch, he poured on the full resources of the FBI, including many sophisticated technologies he had introduced into police work. He also received extensive support from police in Canada and Great Britain. Ray came very, very close to eluding the intense manhunt and escaping to Rhodesia or South Africa, where he hoped to join a mercenary army and be protected from extradition back to the US.
Sides writes very well and I recommend this book. The racial problems that erupted in the sixties have not (so many decades later) been resolved, and it is worthwhile to look back over the assassination that marked a major turning point in the Civil Rights movement.