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04.24.10

Exclusive Excerpt: MLK's Haunting Final Hours

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, Hellhound on His Trail,  Hampton Sides tells the story of the final moments of Martin Luther  King Jr.’s life—including his last conversation, his obliviousness to danger  and why he didn’t want bodyguards, his dinner invitation for Jesse  Jackson, and the careful attention of his assassin.

King looked out over the drained swimming pool, and inhaled the fresh air. The night was partly cloudy and cool—55 degrees—and a crescent moon climbed in the sky. A slight wind blew off the Mississippi River, which was only a few blocks to the west but slightly hidden behind the natural rise of the bluff. All around the Lorraine stood the old cotton lofts and classing rooms, the drab brick warehouses of South Main’s industrial grid. Off to the north, the Memphis skyscrapers rose over the city—the gothic Sterick Building, the spectral-white Lincoln American Tower, the Union Planters Bank with its revolving restaurant, 40 stories up. Everywhere, the downtown lights were just beginning to glitter. On the rooftop of the Peabody Hotel, the resident mallards were happily ensconced in their mansion for the evening.

As King took in the Memphis night, he leaned against the railing for several long minutes, hardly even budging. Anyone who thought about it could see he was completely vulnerable. But King had refused a Memphis police detail as he nearly always did—“I’d feel like a bird in a cage,” he said. He did not believe in bodyguards, certainly not armed ones. No one in his entourage was allowed to carry a gun or a nightstick or any other weapon. The very concept of arming oneself was odious to him—it cut against the grain of his Gandhian principles. He wouldn’t even let his children carry toy guns. In an almost mystical sense, he believed non-violence was a more potent force for self-protection than any kind of weapon. He understood the threats that were about but refused to let them alter the way he lived his life. So no one was up there on the balcony to shield his movements, to shepherd him along, to survey the sightlines and vantage points and anticipate the worst.

If he’d had premonitions of an early death last night— sick white brothers—he seemed to have flushed them from his consciousness. Now he was in a jovial mood. The previous night’s darkness had dissipated. The tornados all around Memphis had killed six and injured more than 100 people, but the storms had passed over, leaving nothing more menacing than rain puddles. King had much to look forward to, and seemed buoyed to have his entourage all around him. Now he was about to head out with comrades to his favorite kind of dinner, to celebrate a victorious day in court. Memphis—maybe the place was redeemable after all.

Walter Bailey, the owner of the Lorraine, noticed King’s ebullient mood as he stood there with his staff. “He just act so different, so happy,” Bailey said. “It looked like they had won the world.”

book-cover---hellhound-on-his-trail
Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin By Hampton Sides 480 pages. Doubleday. $28.95. ()

A little before six, a guest at Mrs. Brewer’s flophouse named Willie Anschutz was sitting in his room, 4-B, with another tenant, Mrs. Jessie Ledbetter. Anschutz, a non-drinker, was a 57-year-old laborer at a local moving company. Mrs. Ledbetter, a deaf-mute widow who’d lived in the rooming house for seven years, was short and stout and wore a bright floral-print dress. The two old friends—Anschutz affectionately called her “the dummy”—had been whiling away the afternoon, sipping Cokes and eating cookies and watching a movie on television. At some point, Anschutz took a small tub of dirty dishes down the hall to rinse them in the common bathroom, but he found the door locked. Five minutes later he returned and found that it was still locked. He jiggled the faceted glass door knob to let the person inside know he was hogging the lavatory. Slightly peeved, he stuck his head inside Charlie Stephens’ room. “Who the hell’s in the bathroom?” he griped under his breath. “He’s been in there awhile.”

Stephens, who was still tinkering with his broken radio in the kitchen of his room, had heard the guy from 5-B traipsing into the bathroom awhile ago and was aware that he’d been in there “an undue length of time.” The walls were paper-thin, and he could hear all comings-and-goings at his end of the flophouse. Oddly, the whole time the 5-B guest had been in there, he hadn’t run any water or flushed the commode.

“Oh, that’s the new guy from 5-B,” Stephens told Anschutz.

“Well, I gotta get in there!” Anschutz complained.

“You comin’ Ralph?” King asked, growing slightly impatient. He had ducked back into room 306 to put get his tailored Petrocelli suitcoat, made of fine black silk, which he’d bought at Zimmerman’s in Atlanta.

“In a second—thought I’d get some of that Aramis, too,” Abernathy said, rummaging through King’s shaving kit.

“I’ll wait for you out here,” King replied, slipping on his jacket. In the pockets of his coat he had a silver Cross pen and a scrap of paper scrawled with notes for a speech he planned to give in Memphis later that week on the Poor People’s Campaign, with the line, “ Nothing is gained without sacrifice.

King rejoined his post, leaning on the balcony just in front of the door. He stood there for awhile, looking down at the small crowd again. Solomon Jones, the driver, cranked the Cadillac to get it warmed up.

From the group, Jesse Jackson made his presence known and greeted King. “Our Leader!” he said, in exaggeratedly regal tones.

“Jesse!” King boomed in return. “I want you to come to dinner with me tonight.” It was a small gesture, but everyone in the entourage knew what it meant; personally inviting Jackson to dinner was King’s first step toward making up with his headstrong apprentice after their fight in Atlanta. King was forgiving him.

But Kyles, still standing on the balcony, interrupted. “Doc, Jesse took care of that before you did. He got himself invited!”

Jackson had in fact already finagled an invitation for himself, but he didn’t look much like he was going to a dinner party. He was wearing a mod olive turtleneck sweater and a leather coat, a fashion decidedly out of step with the rest of the tie-wearing squares of the inner circle. When someone in the Lorraine parking lot gave him a once-over as if to question his attire, Jackson quipped, “All you need for dinner is an appetite.”

King only laughed at Jackson’s hipster threads, and his resourcefulness at adding himself to the invite list. Tonight the Leader was full of charity. He zestfully tugged at both his coat lapels, as was his habit when he felt confident and ready for the world. He was clean-shaven, sweet-smelling, and dressed to the nines. He looked at Jackson and flashed a broad smile.

Georgia Davis was down in #201 with the door slightly ajar. As she fixed her hair in the bathroom mirror, she could hear King carrying on with his staff, could hear The Voice, rich and melodious, booming across the courtyard. She could tell he was in a good mood, maybe too good. She wished he would stop jabbering—she getting hungry. She looked at her watch—6:00. It was growing late, she realized. They were all supposed to be at Kyles’ house by now. Then she glanced out the window and saw King up on the balcony in his suit. He just stood there, the life of his own party, smiling and joking and talking away.

INSIDE THE MILDEWY bathroom, Galt removed the Gamemaster from its box and loaded it with a single Remington-Peters .30-06 round. Galt clearly felt he was running out of time to get off a shot—otherwise he would have loaded the clip with more bullets. He jerked the window up with such force that it jammed after having opened only five inches. Probably using his rifle-tip, he poked the rusted window screen and dislodged it from its groove; the screen tumbled to the weedy lot below.

The bathroom was disgustingly dirty; the toilet bowl was streaked by years of hard water, and a dented piece of wainscoting trim ran along peeling walls the color of robin’s egg. Galt climbed into the old claw-footed bathtub, which was scuzzy and stained, its tarnished drain a tangle of hairs. A flimsy contraption dangling over the tub’s rim contained a shrunken nub of soap. Galt leaned his body against the wall and rested the rifle on the paint-flaked window sill.

Squinting through the Redfield scope, he found King, still standing there on the Lorraine balcony. Galt’s loafers must have squeaked as they rubbed on the surface of the bathtub, leaving black scuff marks. A television murmured somewhere down the hall, and a ventilation fan thumped in a nearby window. The smell of charred burgers tendriled up from Jim’s Grill, where the happy hour Budweiser was flowing and intense games of barroom shuffleboard were in session.

Most likely Galt heard Willie Anschutz rattling the bathroom door, a disruption that doubtless would have tried his concentration. He had to move fast. He brought King’s head within the crosshairs. It was just starting to grow dark outside, but that was not a problem—the chemical emulsion on his scope’s lens enhanced targets viewed in twilight. In the distance behind the Lorraine was the immense gray post office building, a hazy monstrosity looming in the crepuscular light.

King continued to hold court, oblivious to danger. His face nearly filled the scope’s optical plane. He was 205-feet away, but with seven-power magnification, he appeared only 30 feet away. It was an easy shot, Galt must have realized, a cinch.

Galt leaned into the rifle and took aim. Then, at 6:01 PM, he wrapped his index finger around the cool metal trigger.

The Cadillac was still idling down below, and different members of the party were finally edging toward their cars. King, however, did not move from his perch on the balcony—he seemed transfixed by the evening, and enchanted with the scene in the courtyard. Andy Young was shadowboxing with James Orange, a wild bearish man as big as an NFL linebacker. “Now you be careful with preachers half your size!” King called out to Orange at one point.

Jackson, standing beside the Cadillac, introduced King to Ben Branch, a saxophonist and bandleader originally from Memphis. Branch had come down from Chicago to play music in support of the sanitation workers; he and his band had a gig over at Mason Temple that night, where King and his entourage were headed after the Kyles dinner.

“Oh yes,” King said, “He’s my man. How are ya, Ben?”

“Glad to see you, Doc,” Branch called up.

“Ben, I want you to sing for me tonight at the meeting. I want you to do that song, ‘Precious Lord.’” It was the great gospel standard that King had loved for years, a tragic, sweet song written in the depths of the Depression by a black composer named Thomas Dorsey after his wife and baby died in childbirth: When the night draws near / And the day is past and gone / At the river I stand / Guide my feet, hold my hand.

“I want you to sing it like you’ve never sung it before,” King told Branch. “Sing it reeeeeeal pretty.”

“I sure will, Doc.”

Solomon Jones hopped out of the Caddie and yelled up to King. “It’s getting chilly,” said Jones, always looking after his charges. “I think you’ll need a topcoat.”

“OK, Jonesy,” King answered. “You really know how to take good care of me.” He fished for a pack of Salem menthols from his pocket and grasped a cigarette in his hand. He straightened up, and stepped back from the railing. He was just turning, perhaps to retrieve his cashmere topcoat inside the room, when a ragged belch rang out over the parapets of Memphis.

Memphis policeman Willie Richmond, scanning the Lorraine with his binoculars from inside the firehouse, heard the noise. It did not register with him as the report of a rifle—it was just a loud noise of some kind, perhaps a backfiring truck, and it seemed to come from somewhere off to the northwest. But then Richmond saw something horrible. Through his field glasses, through his little peephole in the newspapered window, the scene seemed to reel out in slow motion before Richmond’s eyes: King falling backwards from the handrail. King grasping the right side of his face. King tumbling to the balcony floor. King staying there, and not getting up. Removing the binoculars from his face, Richmond could not believe what he’d just witnessed. No one inside the station had heard anything. No one had an inkling of what had happened.

So Richmond turned and ran through the firehouse, yelling: “He’s been shot! The Rev King has been shot!”

Charlie Stephens, still trying to repair an old radio in his flophouse room just a few feet away from the bathroom, heard the concussion through the thin plywood wall. Even in his alcoholic stupor, he instantly knew what it was. Having fought in Europe, he was well-acquainted with the sound of weapon fire. “I know a shot when I hear one,” he later said. “When that explosion went off, it sounded like a German 88.”

Inside the bathroom, Eric Galt withdrew the rifle from the cracked window. He knew he’d made a serious hit to King’s head. The aerosol mist of blood would have been visible through the scope. King had been knocked back and largely disappeared from view on the balcony’s concrete floor.

Now Galt scrambled out of the bathtub and threw the still-warm Gamemaster and his other belongings into the bedspread. He wrapped it all up in a bundle. He unlocked the bathroom door and took off down the hall, heading for the stairs.

Charlie Stephens opened the door and saw a man in a dark suit leaving the bathroom hallway with a long package under one arm. He assumed it was the stranger in 5-B, but he only saw him from the back.

Willie Anschutz, who like Stephens had heard the alarming noise from the bathroom, was standing farther down the corridor. The roomer in 5-B brushed past him, carrying an ungainly bundle under one arm. “He had something about three and half foot long,” Anschutz recalled, “wrapped up in something, it might have been an old piece of blanket.” He was walking at a businesslike clip, but not quite running. A smirky smile curled across his face.

“Hey, that sounded like a shot!” Anschutz said to the man.

Now covering his face with his free hand, the tenant who called himself John Willard calmly replied, “It was.”

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A native of Memphis, Hampton Sides is the author of the New York Times bestseller Blood and Thunder and the international bestseller, Ghost Soldiers, winner of the 2002 PEN USA award for nonfiction. His magazine work has been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing.