In many ways, the image that shows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as he lay dying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, tells a defining story of Memphis.
Yet in her book, “The Kneeling Man: My Father’s Life as a Black Spy Who Witnessed the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Leta McCollough Seletzky deepens the story of that startling image.
As a child in Memphis, McCollough Seletzky learned from her mother (former MLK50 managing editor Peggy McKenzie) that her father Marrell “Mac” McCollough was the man on bended knee in that photo. In high school, she read an article in the Commercial Appeal that revealed he’d worked undercover as a Memphis police officer to infiltrate a Black militant group called the Invaders.
It took years for McCollough Seletzky to work up the courage to ask her father about his life; when she finally did, he wrote her a 17-page letter, describing his childhood of poverty and racism in small-town Mississippi and his path from the MPD to the CIA. She didn’t read it for five years.
In 2015, she finally started on the journey that became a compelling Southern book that explores not just her father’s life as one of the few Black police officers in the 1960s, but policing itself, its history of surveillance and its militarization. In that way, it’s about Memphis’ past and its present.
MLK50: How big, when you were growing up, was the assassination of Dr. King sort of in the way you experienced or processed Memphis?
McCollough Seletzky: I think that the assassination loomed very large in my perception of the city. I think that it was really a shadow that hung over the city, and it really did seem like a kind of wound. I wouldn’t have thought of it exactly in those terms, but looking back, that’s really what it was. It was a sore point. It was something horrific. It was an injury to the city, to the society, and I think even to our perception of ourselves. And yes, it was something violent and something that left us wounded. It gave everything kind of a cast of tragedy and death.
MLK50: You had already seen the picture, but then your father became identified as part of that tragic scene. Before you wrote this book, did you just ignore that? Did that just shift everything in some way?
McCollough Seletzky: Yeah, I think knowing that my father was in that photo and knowing he was a police officer, it definitely personalized the photo for me further. It was already somewhat personalized just because I knew that it was in the city, Memphis, that I was living in.
I think that it was something that I kind of compartmentalized in a way, because that picture is one that is hard to escape. It frequently comes up, especially when people are talking about the 1960s, especially when people are talking about Memphis, the sanitation strike. I really don’t feel that I felt any kind of way personally in terms of personal tragedy about that photo until I learned that my father was actually working undercover to infiltrate this Black militant group, the Invaders, and that’s why he was in that photo. That’s when things took on a sinister cast in my mind.
MLK50: What was the sinister cast?
McCollough Seletzky: By the time I saw this photograph, I was probably a junior in high school, and I was politically aware enough to be pretty familiar with the Black Panthers, whom I really admired. I had read books about Huey Newton, I’d read one of the Panther memoirs. I’d read Frantz Fanon because I knew that they took inspiration from him, among others. And so to read about this Invaders group, I didn’t know much about them, but what I did know about them put me into mind of the Panthers. And so to think that my father, a Black man, would be spying on black people and reporting back to the Memphis Police Department was just something that I could not understand. …It made me wonder what else was going on. What other secrets were there in this photograph or behind this photograph?
MLK50: Then he writes you this letter, and you start reading it, and then you stop. You can’t do it. What is it that you were afraid to feel?
McCollough Seletzky: I think I was afraid to feel the trauma and the pain that was the reason, or a major reason behind all the silence. That generation, my dad’s generation, and the generations before that, they keep a lot of secrets. They don’t talk about a lot of things that our generation and our young, younger generations feel more free to speak of. And I think part of the reason behind that is the trauma and the pain.
MLK50: I think your dad would say that he lived a life of service, and I don’t think that’s wrong, but I really felt like the book, in a lot of ways, was mining the idea of safety or security. Were you thinking about that idea of safety and security?
McCollough Seletzky: While I wasn’t thinking of that explicitly, I think you’re absolutely right. That is a thread throughout the story, kind of going from a very unstable upbringing that was unstable for a variety of reasons, some of which were just kind of family circumstances. And then of course, all of this is kind of dictated by this oppressive society and culture that they’re living in, but just not ever having this stability and seeking that, and knowing that education is the key to that, I think that that really propelled him through his life to seek security. And I really was thinking in terms of this idea of order, law and order. And really, it’s kind of another way of looking at security. To him, order was the key to security. And so I was thinking about how the police often try to couch what they’re doing in terms of maintaining order.
However, the order that they’re really maintaining much of the time, or all too often, I will say, is really the status quo. And so that idea of order is very much at odds with … his idea of order and what he was trying to uphold and find security in, which was the kind of order that meant equity for all.
MLK50: How now do you think about your father’s work in policing and surveillance with all that you’ve researched, learned and also that you just grapple with as a person in 2023?
McCollough Seletzky: I think he did the best that he could with the path that was available to him, or on the path that was available to him. I think that the police absolutely should not have been in the business of surveilling people who were exercising their constitutional rights. And I don’t think that people should be in any way inhibited from exercising their First Amendment rights to speech, to criticize in the government, to assembly, that kind of thing. And there’s no reason… The police shouldn’t have been doing that. But it’s ahistorical, for me to put my lens of today over what was happening then, because they simply, and my dad and I explicitly talk about this, they explicitly were not thinking in those terms.
They were thinking in terms of, it was almost like this Cold War mentality of containment and this idea of dangerous ideas that could catch hold like little fires and spread and turn the city upside down, turn society upside down. And so they were trying to make sure… They were trying to keep that from happening. They weren’t thinking about free speech and freedom of assembly or killing the exercise or the First Amendment. That just simply was not the reality of the way they were thinking. And there was a whole intelligence bureau of people doing these jobs as if it were completely legitimate and justified.
I think we have to come back to intention because I think intention matters so much and what someone does. At the same time, whether there’s actual harm matters as well.
Whether what someone’s doing is harmful matters. I think that his intention was to execute his duties with honor and according to the charter, the police department, and he did that in terms of harm. I talked to a couple of Invaders, and from what I could glean from them, I didn’t get the impression that they thought that he harmed them. And just in doing research and reading and listening to what people had to say about him, I mean, I had even heard from someone, and I can’t remember now, but I mean, there was this idea that, ‘Oh, we knew all the time that he was an undercover police officer. We knew that. We just thought, well, it was to our benefit to have a Black officer.’ Who knows? But I think that his intentions were honorable, and I don’t think that he did harm. And I think that what he experienced, he learned from that, and I think he grew from that.
MLK50: So why, the other part of that I was thinking of was just having done this research and understanding the origins in the sense of policing in Memphis and Black officers in Memphis, what kinds of things came up to you when you were watching the Tyre Nichols story unfold?
McCollough Seletzky: I thought about the Black (former) officer that rode along with my dad and his first partner, Officer Clark. He was one of the first Black officers who, he had this beat on Beale Street, and he gloried in telling these stories about going upside people’s heads, and he used the n-word and that was his thing. And those ride-alongs were a way for my dad’s partner (who was white) to show him, this is what I expect from you as a Black officer. This is your place. And it just showed that even though a police officer is a Black man, that doesn’t mean that he is not upholding these principles of white supremacy. That does not mean that he’s not an oppressive figure. So in other words, representation doesn’t get us there to equity, to anti-racism. Just having Black faces isn’t nearly enough.
MLK50: I wanted to ask you last about the quote you used in the beginning, the Aeschylus quote. And I know, I did a little research, and so that Robert Kennedy sort of referenced that on the day that Dr. King was assassinated. And I wondered just why you chose it and what it meant to you.
McCollough Seletzky: That is exactly why I chose it, because that was included in his speech when he was announcing the death of Dr. King. And I thought that it’s just a beautifully moving quote that was very apropos. But also, I think that it reflected one of the great truths of this book, which is that wisdom comes to you really against your will, and it comes drop by drop. And it’s a painful process, but it’s a necessary process, and it reflects a grace that is awful in the sense that it is awe inspiring, but also quite difficult. And yeah, I think it speaks to this kneeling man who’s kind of this Herculean type figure who’s had to complete these labors in his life, who’s been on something of what’s sort of like archetypal hero’s journey. So I think that quote kind of reflects that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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