The Making of an Assassin

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

In the past fifteen years, nearly a hundred books have been published that claim to answer the legal questions: who really killed President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy? If Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and Sirhan Sirhan killed them, did they act alone or were they part of a conspiracy? In The Making of an Assassin, George McMillan gives his answer to that question regarding one of the three killings: James Earl Ray was the lone assassin of Martin Luther King. Few books attempt to answer the sociological and psychological questions. McMillan poses and answers those questions as well. His task is to convince his readers—in 318 informally, ambiguously documented pages. With most reviewers, he succeeds.

McMillan once intended to subtitle Ray’s biography “An American Life”; but that point, implicit on every page, was reiterated by most reviewers. If their noble slain leaders exemplify their aspirant qualities, Americans must accept the concept that their ignoble celebrities exemplify squalid aspects of the American character. While arguing no conspiracy in fact, McMillan argues a conspiracy of the spirit, between society and the psyches it helps to produce, a conspiracy that turns the American Dream into nightmare.

Few books examine American heroes and their destroyers closely enough. The man who dedicated himself to a simple solution was the complex product of a society that taught him to believe in simple, direct solutions to complex problems. McMillan, a freelance journalist, devoted eight years to investigating not only the facts but also the social and psychological processes that produced and perhaps begin to explain them. Ray did not act simply from a racism grounded in envy and spite. McMillan begins to explain the development of far more complex factors and how they combined to produce the one criminal racist in all America capable of acting out his version of the American Dream: to assassinate “The Big Nigger,” enthrone George Wallace, and thus create a conservative society based on white supremacist religious, ethical, and economic principles.

McMillan goes to Ray’s very genes to delineate prefigurations of Ray’s enormous act. If blood tells, it told McMillan a great deal. He argues that Ray’s great-grandfather was probably Ned Ray, hanged for participating in a mass murder in Montana in 1865. He meshes this exercise in genealogical detection with descriptions of the family (steeped in a long history of poverty, violence, crime) and the Missouri hometown environment that shaped Ray.

Ray’s racist mentality was inculcated in a close-knit, lower-lower-class, semirural family. Ray was a loner, an outsider even within a family of loners and outsiders. What set him apart was his obviously superior intelligence (IQ 108) and a temper that even at seven frightened them all. McMillan says the sum of their lives was “sordid degradation and spiritual destitution,” and quotes a county juvenile judge’s summation: “They were a lousy outfit.”

Ray’s first teacher in Ewing, Missouri, characterized him on his report card as a violator of every rule, dishonest, seldom polite, and physically “repulsive.” In that school, he was taught he was socially inferior but that Negroes were worse. Ray dragged Ewing with him down the Mississippi, from one “wretched and squalid” physical and “moral slum” to another—to Quincy (where “two blocks is a lifetime”) and Alton, Illinois, St. Louis, to several Missouri prisons, to Memphis. He carried with him a defensive hatred of his own worst feature—weakness.

But he pitied the weakness of children. This Huck Finn who set out for the heart of darkness was also a Catcher in the Rye. He told Curtis, his partner in crime, that he wanted to rob enough money to build an orphanage for neglected children, and he would maintain it by robbing. He had a total lack of sympathy for suffering adults, because adults were the cause of suffering in children. As for women, they were all whores, useful for “hauling his ashes.”

McMillan points out the absurdity of Ray’s crimes, the sordidness of their settings, the inept violence and self-degradation of their commissions, the humiliation of his captures. Discharged from the army for “ineptness,” he robbed a Kroger store in Chicago; chased by police, he fell through a basement window into a washtub. Another time, police captured him in a bathroom. He escaped from prison in a bread basket. And he carried out “the most important single act of his life . . . with his feet in the old, stained, rooming house” bathtub. Then bloodhounds found the escapee under soggy leaves. McMillan suspects that he wanted to get caught, to end the anger that infused his crime. Captured, he was strangely calm; incarcerated, he was a model prisoner, who dreamed intensely of a future of high crimes.

McMillan’s tracing of the evolution of Ray’s politics may strike the reader as a little forced, but no less fascinating, and true, at least metaphorically. As a child in Ewing, Ray had hated Roosevelt so much that he became the only Republican in Ewing. “Nazism can attract those who are...

(The entire section is 2127 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Kirkus Reviews. XLIV, August 15, 1976, p. 947.

Library Journal. CI, September 1, 1976, p. 1791.

New York Times Book Review. October 31, 1976, p. 6.

Newsweek. LXXXVIII, October 25, 1976, p. 110.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCX, August 23, 1976, p. 62.