Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassin, can trace its origins back to my childhood. When I was a boy, my mother—an artist—led me to what she called her “morgue”: a tall, floor-to-ceiling closet with a sliding door that concealed several shelves piled high with vintage source material, including newspapers, magazines and picture books documenting the tumultuous events of the 1960s, including the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mesmerized, I paged through old Life magazines from the spring of 1968. I opened long-folded newspapers, their pages browned and brittle, and read their frightening headlines. I wanted—needed—to learn more. For years, I have collected the books, documents, artifacts and original sources that allowed me to write Chasing King’s Killer.
My book is about more than the assassination. The story opens before the tragedy, in 1950s America, when a 29-year-old minister survived a shocking, near-fatal stabbing in New York City and went on to become the greatest civil rights leader in American history. I want young readers to know Martin Luther King, Jr. in life—first as a boy, then as a young man and finally as a leader on the world stage. Readers accompany King on his amazing 10-year journey to greatness. And then they travel to April 1968, and to King’s fateful trip to Memphis, Tennessee. They also meet a mysterious, lifelong criminal whose 1967 escape from prison sent him on a bizarre, year-long odyssey that climaxed with the murder of Dr. King, a dramatic escape and the biggest manhunt in American history. I set the whole story against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1960s that had mesmerized me in my youth: the civil rights movement, the FBI’s harassment of King, the Vietnam War, the counterculture and the race to the moon.
To research Chasing King’s Killer, I immersed myself in the documents, photographs, music and popular culture of the 1960s. I studied biographies, memoirs and histories, but also newspapers and magazines to capture the mood of the era. I combed through thousands of images that tell the story of the turbulent time of civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War protests. I discovered a shocking and surprising new letter written by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, illustrating his hatred for King and his desire to ruin him. (Published for the first time in this book, the letter has already made the news!) And I located original examples of the four different types of FBI wanted posters for James Earl Ray. Each one tells a story. All of these sources put me into the mindset of what it was like to live through the tragic events of 1968. My research was every bit as intense as the work I do in the books I write for an adult audience. I researched everything from slavery and the Civil War to the history of the civil rights movement and the pop culture of 1960s America. All told, I used several hundred sources and several thousand photographs. Some photographs will be familiar, others are seldom seen. All are incredibly moving. I think we achieved seamless matching of text and images.
It is exciting to write a book set in the 20th century. One of the frustrations of writing about Abraham Lincoln is that he lived long before the age of film or sound recording. Everyone who once knew him was long dead. In contrast, while researching this book, I was able to meet some of those who actually knew Dr. Martin Luther King. It was a privilege to meet people like Julian Bond, Dorothy Nash and Congressman John Lewis, who wrote the foreword to the book. And unlike Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. can speak to us through films and recordings. We can watch him in action striding across America’s stage, and hear his magnificent and stirring voice.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, haunts us to this day. We miss him still. But the tragedy of 50 years ago can also inspire us. King was a great man who loved America. He was an optimist about the country’s future who believed that one day “we as a people will get to the promised land.” He was also one of the bravest men in American history who lived for years under the near-constant threat of violence and death, even more so than Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy. On the last night of his life, in the most moving speech he ever gave, King said, “Tonight I am not fearing any man,” and that “I want to live a long life.” It was not to be. Half a century later, the all too brief life of Martin Luther King, Jr.—he was only 39 years old when he died—continues to inspire us.
I hope that sharing his story will inspire a new generation of young Americans.
Author photo by Lisa Nipp.