Saturday, April 7, 2018
Chasing King's Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Assassin
So it shouldn't surprise anyone that I picked up what I am calling the third book in the assassination series for YA readers this week, Chasing King's Killer. The timing couldn't have been better with the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King's assassination this past week and there were lots of news events commemorating the horrific and fateful event.
At first I was pretty critical of the book. Swanson seemed to be summing up the whole Civil Rights Movement at break-neck speed. Events like the March on Selma and the Montgomery Bus Boycott were mentioned in short paragraphs or less. I kept thinking that someone who knew little to nothing about the movement wouldn't know much more after reading the book. Then on page 78 of 373, the shift occurred, now the text started to focus more on James Earl Ray, MLK's assassin, and what he was up for the days, weeks, months prior to that fateful day, April 4, 1968. Suddenly the book read like a murder mystery. Come to think of it, it was a murder mystery only with real people. Swanson outlined all the details that brought the two men together and the kinds of things that Ray did in preparation for the murder. No details were spared. A map of the two blocks where the rooming-house where Ray stayed and the Lorraine Hotel where MLK was a guest gave the reader a good idea of who the shooting could occur. Photos of Ray, from mug shots to the photo of his graduation from bartending school gave us a fuller picture of the man.
After the assassination Ray was able to escape, right under the nose of several police officers who happened to be taking a break at the fire station nearby at the time of the shooting. The manhunt, which ultimately involved half of the manpower of the FBI at the time, took two months but they found their man in London where he had gone on his way to escape to a country without extradition to the USA. The last 100+ books of the book were dedicated to the manhunt both from the FBIs point of view and what Ray was doing to elude capture. In addition information about the aftermath of the assassination in the country. The very day that his death was announced violence erupted nationwide and many cities, Washington, DC for one, experienced horrible looting and fires. People were understandably angry and upset. After years of King's call for non-violence, everything turned on a dime at his death.
For many years some people believed that Ray was part of a larger conspiracy to murder King but in Chasing King's Killer the reader is not left with that impression. Ray murdered MLK on his own and he went to his grave without telling anyone why he did it. One theory that makes sense to me, was he thought he'd be heralded as a hero by white supremacists who certainly wouldn't find him guilty, in fact they would probably funnel money his way. If true, it was a very sad and twisted motive.
Now here is the most unbelievable thing about this book---it has over 100 pages of reference materials at the end of it. There are recommended reading lists for every topic Swanson covered in the book. There are several timelines. A list and description of suggested places to visit to learn more about the movement. The book is crammed pull of photographs which bring the events to life in ways that words can't. I have been a teen librarian for years and I have never seen such an exhaustive list of resources and such a user friendly guide for more research. It is tremendous.
I highly, highly recommend that you read this book. If you are a teen librarian, make sure your library has at least one copy of this book available for your patrons to check out and to use for their research projects. Now I am am going to see if I can find a copy of Chasing Lincoln's Killer. I am very interested in finishing Swanson's series on Presidential/important people assassinations, though, even as I say it, I wonder if Robert Kennedy's assassination is next? I could start a rumor. Hmm.