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Father-daughter memoir 'The Kneeling Man' highlights the complex life of a Black spy

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Fifty-five years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated - shot by a sniper's bullet while standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. In an iconic photo of the chaotic moments that followed, we see King lying on the balcony, surrounded by a group of people trying to help him. Among them is a young Black man kneeling down, holding a towel to King's head, trying to stop the bleeding. That man was Marrell McCullough. He was there with a group of Black activists who had been meeting with King. But McCullough also had a secret. He was a Memphis cop who'd been spying on the movement.

LETA MCCOLLOUGH SELETZKY: (Reading) Of course, the only reason he was on the assistant chief's radar was because he was Black and therefore one of the few officers who could blend in with the strikers and their supporters. For once, his race put him in good stead in the department.

FLORIDO: That's McCullough's daughter, Leta McCollough Seletzky, reading from her book about her father's life. It's called "The Kneeling Man." She'd known the photo most of her life, but not her father's role that day, until high school.

MCCOLLOUGH SELETZKY: I found out from the local newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, when I was a junior in high school. I was an avid newspaper reader, having grown up in a household with journalists. My mother and stepfather were journalists. So I was reading the newspaper one day, and I saw an article that described a Black undercover Memphis police officer who was present at the scene of the assassination. And then it had my dad's name in it as being that officer. And so that's when I learned part of the rest of the story.

FLORIDO: Well, the rest of that story was that your dad was not just a Memphis police officer. He was acting as a double agent. He was there pretending to be an activist. And he had infiltrated a militant Black activist group known as the Invaders. Now, who were the Invaders? And why were they - and, therefore, your dad - at the Lorraine Motel that day?

MCCOLLOUGH SELETZKY: The Invaders were a Black militant group based in Memphis who were seeking to create opportunities and openings for self-determination in Black institutions and neighborhoods and so forth, working with Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference to try to help the cause of the city's striking sanitation workers. For that reason, the Invaders were in talks with Dr. King to assist with demonstrations, and the SCLC had provided the Invaders a couple of rooms, I believe it was, at the Lorraine Motel. And so that is why they were there. And the Lorraine also happened to be the SCLC's kind of base of operations in terms of lodging in Memphis.

FLORIDO: And why was your dad there?

MCCOLLOUGH SELETZKY: Well, my dad was wherever the Invaders were in order to complete this task that he was given, which was to listen in on what the Invaders were doing, see if they were planning to radicalize the strike supporters - the supporters of the sanitation strike. So on April 4, 1968, as an Invader - and, in fact, he had been named their minister of transportation - he had been driving around a couple of Dr. King's cohorts from the SCLC, James Orange, who they called Baby Jesus, with a couple of college students and then went back to a church that was kind of a nerve center of the sanitation strike efforts, Clayborn Temple. And there, he met up with James Bevel, another SCLC member. And so they took two cars over to the Lorraine Motel. By this time, it's evening. It's getting close to dinner. And this is why my father wound up there shortly before Dr. King was murdered.

FLORIDO: Why did your dad feel that infiltrating a Black activist group was the chance that his young career had been waiting for?

MCCOLLOUGH SELETZKY: He was 23 years old, had just graduated from the Memphis Police Department Academy in December of 1967. So essentially, he was just a couple of months on the job. He had already appeared, you know, in uniform. So when he's asked to infiltrate this militant group, he's looking at it in a pragmatic way of, I - you know, this is more interesting than foot patrol. This is more interesting than car patrols. So that was the lens through which he was viewing the assignment. But, of course, there's a lot of naivete to that.

FLORIDO: Your dad's experience as a spy for the police meant that he was in the room for some pretty important moments in Memphis' civil rights struggle. I mean, he was sitting in the audience at some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches in the weeks before he was killed. And I was fascinated that he found that he identified and sympathized with what these activists were trying to accomplish because he himself was a - as a Black man who'd struggled, you know, to emerge from poverty. And I'm wondering how he reconciled these two realities of his, you know? What did you find about how he managed to justify what he was doing?

MCCOLLOUGH SELETZKY: I really don't think he did reconcile these two ideas of, on one hand, sympathizing with the cause of the sanitation workers, which he did with supporting Dr. King and what he was doing and admiring Dr. King and the movement and supporting everything that it stood for. This story speaks to this idea of double consciousness, as articulated by W.E.B. DuBois, where to be Black and then to also be American can be ideas that are very much at odds and in conflict.

And so I think there's a certain amount of compartmentalization that has to happen there. And I think he was able to kind of integrate all of these things into who he became. And so he's a very different person than he was when he was 23 years old, of course. You know, now he's much older. He has the freedom to live out the beliefs that he has inside.

FLORIDO: You are a daughter who loves her dad, and a lot of your book is a struggle to understand and even find some meaning in what he did. But I wondered, do you ever wish he'd just made a different choice?

MCCOLLOUGH SELETZKY: That's a very difficult question. There are so many factors that went into the path that he took. On one level, he did have a lot of personal agency, and I think it would be a mistake to discount that. He made choices. And, you know, he exercised his will to make the best of the circumstances that he had. At the same time, it's important to recognize that there are systems outside of those personal choices, particularly in the time periods that we're talking about from the mid-1940s in Jim Crow Mississippi through the '60s and beyond. And so his choices are circumscribed by oppressive systems, you know, basically limiting the paths available to him.

And so looking at all that now, in retrospect, I think that it would be really difficult for me to judge that because the position that he was in is so vastly different from anything that I've ever experienced. I mean, on one hand, it's vastly different. On the other hand, it does still resonate today in terms of the same kinds of oppressive systems perhaps recast in different ways that circumscribe our choices today and, you know, what freedom looks like and what unfreedom looks like in terms of how systems shape the choices available to us. So to answer your question, I do not judge what he did.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Leta McCollough Seletzky. Her new book is called "The Kneeling Man."

Thanks for joining us.

MCCOLLOUGH SELETZKY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHALID SONG, "LOCATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.

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