The Books Interview: Hampton Sides

Your new book about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Hellhound on his Trail, is also about your home town, Memphis, isn't it?
One of the reasons that I wanted to do this book so badly was to go back to this pivotal moment in the history of my home town and try to understand and deconstruct it; try to figure out what brought King to Memphis and what brought the assassin James Earl Ray there. So I originally wanted to write a biography of Memphis, set against the backdrop of the assassination. But the assassination, once I got into it, became too big. It just sprawls in all directions because Ray was constantly moving, because I think he was an agent of larger forces in the nation.

Which forces?
One of the signals he was picking up loud and clear was that of the governor of Alabama, George Wallace. In 1968, Wallace spoke to him in profound ways, not just because he was a racist, but because he was very good at articulating the frustrations of disenfranchised, lower-class white voters who felt as if society was heading in a very different direction. Hard-working redneck white folks really responded to Wallace, and so did Ray. So did his whole family.

Do you see any parallels between Wallace's movement and the Tea Party today?
Definitely. The Tea Party has very close affinities with independent third-party movements like the George Wallace movement. The Tea Party is still inchoate, still trying to figure out what it's going to become. It has, I think, some thoroughly legitimate aspects to it - basically libertarian people who want smaller government, fewer engagements overseas. But it also has this fringe with people who are talking about picking up weapons and taking back government, packing heat to go to meetings and all that stuff. When all of this is knocking around the echo chamber of the internet, it becomes terrifying.

Why did King come to Memphis in the spring of 1968?
By this time, King had shifted his focus from civil rights to what he called "economic justice", and had embarked on the "Poor People's Campaign", which was enormously controversial. Many of his aides and his allies were telling him to stick to civil rights and not get distracted by every little thing that came along. One of the things that came along was a strike by garbage workers in Memphis. King said: "It's the perfect local illustration of what I'm trying to do."

After King's assassination, Robert Kennedy tried to take up his mantle.
I think he felt that someone needed to pick up that standard. And he was the only one who actively supported the Poor People's Campaign. Following the riots after King's assassination, Kennedy went to the inner cities and tried to figure out how to rebuild them. That was the other reason why Bobby Kennedy's assassination was so devastating - because he had taken up this cause. So when the leaders of the Poor People's Campaign got the news of his death, it was just the final blow. There was nothing left.

You were six when King was shot in 1968. What do you remember of that day?
I remember being scared. I remember my parents being scared. I remember radio and television voices - people were terrified that the city was just going to rip apart. I remember the next day my parents yanked me out of school and we left the city for three days, because there was a fear that there would be major riots. There wasn't a major riot - partly because the National Guard was already there clamping down on things. Mainly, I remember feeling that it was the first time I was aware of history happening, feeling the weight of history, the glare of it on my home town.

What lasting effects did the assassination have on Memphis?
At the time, Memphis was as large as Atlanta. But businesses just gave up on it, went elsewhere in the South. Memphis lost its shine. Before this, it had a reputation for being a racially moderate city, but you ended up with a huge amount of "white flight" from the city to the suburbs. And the black population of Memphis became very distrustful of the white leadership, the white mayor and the white city council.

“Hellhound on his Trail" is published by Allen Lane (£25)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.