Due out at the dawn of the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., James L. Swanson’s Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassin chronicles the lead-up to, aftershock, and repercussions of this climactic milestone in U.S. history. As in his earlier historical books for young adult readers—Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and The President Has Been Shot!: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy—Swanson’s latest work includes wide-ranging quotes, period photos, and extensive back matter. Chasing King’s Killer, which Scholastic Press will publish on January 2 with a 50,000-copy first print run, features a foreword by Congressman John Lewis, a fellow civil rights pioneer and friend of King. PW spoke with Swanson about his lifelong fascination with history, his passion for chronicling the stories of heroic Americans, and his interest in inspiring kids’ love of history.
What initially ignited your interest in history and the iconic leaders whose stories you’ve told?
I’ve been interested in history for as long as I remember. I was born on Lincoln’s birthday, in Chicago, Illinois—his home state. When I was eight or nine, my grandmother gave me an unusual gift. It wasn’t a baseball glove or bat, but a framed engraving of the Derringer pistol James Wilkes Booth used to shoot Lincoln. And along with the engraving was a newspaper clipping from the Chicago Tribune, dated April 15, 1865, with a headline announcing that the President had been shot. But the clipping was torn off soon after that, and I remember thinking that I wanted to read the rest of the story—I knew I needed to know it. But at that time, I needed a book that no one had yet written.
And years later you wrote the book about Lincoln’s assassination that you would have liked to read as a boy?
Yes, though I wrote my first book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, for adults, I later adapted it for young adults in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. It is definitely a book I’d like to have discovered as a child.
Did writing about Lincoln inspire you to then focus on the lives and assassinations of Kennedy and King?
Their stories have deep connections. These are three of the great heroes of American history. In many ways, King fulfilled the mission of Lincoln, who was a visionary who believed that racial discrimination and slavery were very wrong, yet did not live long enough to carry out his plan for ending them. America suffered as a result, and it took a century to complete the journey from slavery to freedom. King was very much a prophet, and took up Lincoln’s work, but like Lincoln, he was killed so young that the country did not get the benefits of what he would have achieved if he had lived longer.
How did the fact that all three of these leaders were assassinated fuel your fascination with them?
I’m often asked why I write about such morbid things as death and assassination. What most interests me is the moments of dramatic, instantaneous change in American history. It’s terrible how one murderer can so enormously change history overnight, and to me one of the most disturbing phenomena of history is how these assassins can suddenly emerge from the depths of American society and ruin so much that is great.
Yet you feel it’s important to chronicle the story of these assassins?
Yes, I believe we need to remember who they are—they cannot be banished from these stories—we need to understand the whole story. The fact that King’s killer, James Earl Ray, was a mysterious cipher who appeared out of nowhere fascinated me, since so little was known about his backstory. I want to emphasize that it is King who is the hero of this book—but I wanted readers to know Ray’s stories.
It’s evident from the scope of your books—and expansive bibliographies—that you devote a great deal of time to researching and writing them. How long did it take you to complete Chasing King’s Killer?
It took about three years, I’d say. I knew that the story could not be just about King’s last days, and wanted readers to come to know King in the context of his time. It was important to me to transport readers to 1960s America, and feel what it was like to live through such events as the Vietnam War, riots, and the civil rights movement. I read thousands of documents and looked at thousands of photographs, and chose some that hadn’t yet been published. I wanted the book to be fresh—and to let readers see the story through a wide lens. And it was thrilling for me to have a chance to meet and talk to some of the people who were involved in the civil rights movement and knew King, including John Lewis.
Did you discover anything in your research that surprised you—or that will surprise readers?
One thing that struck me, and which many people don’t know or have forgotten, is that King was almost stabbed to death by a woman at a book signing in New York City in 1958. We came so close to losing him in his 20s, and I kept thinking how much of our history would be so different if he had died then—we’d have no “I Have a Dream” speech, no letter from the Birmingham jail, no words about having seen the Promised Land.
And I also became more aware than ever that King, more than Lincoln and Kennedy, who were both obviously brave men, was under constant threat of assassination, and was beaten, stoned, arrested, and had his house bombed. He admitted he was sometimes frightened, yet he was undeterred, and pursued his mission, which is a tribute to his bravery. I think King is one of the most courageous individuals in history.
Is it gratifying to bring King’s story to young adults?
Absolutely. One reason I enjoy writing for young people is that I am very lucky to be so in touch with the person I was as a boy, and am writing for the boy I was. I only write what moves me very deeply, and I hope that readers will learn through my books that history is anything but boring—it’s about great stories. And I also want young people to realize—this is something John Lewis mentions in his prologue—that they don’t have to be spectators and stand on the sidelines. Not only can they read about people who have done great things, they can aspire to do the same. I love the enthusiasm I see in so many kids, and it’s exciting to imagine what they will do that will make such a difference.
Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassin by James L. Swanson. Scholastic Press, $19.99 (Jan. 2) ISBN 978-0-545-72333-6