“The Kneeling Man” – with Leta McCollough Seletsky
Erin Dietrick: Welcome to SpyCast. The official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm Erin Dietrick, your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond's content partner. Each week, we explore some aspect of the world of intelligence and espionage. Its past, its present, or its future. Coming up next on SpyCast.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: And so I would come home from school and read the newspaper. And I was paging through the newspaper and I saw an article, you know, about the assassination. And oh, look, it says here that there was a black police officer who was a mole in this militant group called the Invaders. And then I see my father's name.
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Erin Dietrick: Leta McCollough Seletsky is this week's SpyCast guest. She came on the show to share the story of her father, the famous kneeling man, who is seen down by the side of Martin Luther King Jr., who was struck down by an assassin's bullet at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th, 1968. Marrell "Mac" McCollough was attempting to stem the flow of blood from Dr. King's wound with a borrowed towel. Leta grew up fully aware that her father was the man in the photograph beside the Civil Rights leader and Nobel Prize laureate. What she didn't find out until many years later was that her father was actually an undercover spy working with the Memphis Police Department. Leta is a former litigator, who went on to become a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow. In this episode, Andrew and Leta discuss the life and times of Marrell "Mac" McCollough, the CIA connection between father and daughter, Black Power and the counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO, and coming to terms with the past and the present. You can support our podcast for free by subscribing to the show, or giving us a five star review on Apple Podcasts. The official podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are SpyCast. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: Okay, well it's a real pleasure to speak to you. And the story that you have in your book, "The Kneeling Man," is a really, really powerful and fascinating story. So, I've read the book, I feel like I understand it. But I feel like you understand it much better than me because you wrote it. So could you just tell us very briefly what your book is about?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes. Well first of all, I want to thank you for having me on this podcast. But yes, "The Kneeling Man" is the story behind the man who is kneeling over a fatally wounded Dr. King in the famous photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. And so a lot of people don't really notice this kneeling man, you know, unless one is familiar with some of the conspiracy theories around the assassination. But this book tells the story of why he is there on that balcony. What brought him to the Lorraine Motel on April 4th, 1968. What he saw and experienced and what the aftermath of being at the scene of the assassination was for him. And how that aftermath unfolded, not only in his life, but in the lives of his loved ones.
Andrew Hammond: And there's a twist to the story because you actually have a connection to the kneeling man, don't you? Can you tell the listeners about that?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes, I should probably mention that this kneeling man is my father.
Andrew Hammond: And let's just open the story up a bit. So we've got the kneeling man in the photograph, he's your father. Why is he there? How is he there? Just tell us listeners a little bit more about how your father found himself there.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes. So, my father, you know, people at the scene of the assassination believed that he was a member of a black militant group called the Invaders. And in fact, people thought he was their minister of transportation, Marrell. But what they didn't know was that he in fact was a mole in this group from the Memphis Police Department. He was a commissioned police officer who was working undercover to infiltrate this black militant group. And it was through his work infiltrating this group, actually carrying out his duties as minister of transportation, driving people, that happened to bring him to the Lorraine Motel shortly before Dr. King was shot.
Andrew Hammond: And do you know how much of that was happenstance and how much of it was planned? So the group that your father was a part of, the Invaders, they are going to have talks with Dr. Martin Luther King. Did your father go undercover with the Invaders because that would give him proximity to Martin Luther King or is that a completely separate thing?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: It's a completely separate thing. I've gotten that question before. But his work infiltrating this group was actually something that arose out of the Memphis Police Department's concerns. And you know, I believe, you know, one could infer probably the FBI's concerns as well. That this militant group was potentially seeking to cause civil unrest in Memphis during the historic sanitation strike. Which began in February, you know, just a couple months before Dr. King was killed. And actually, it was the sanitation strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis. And so there was a concern in law enforcement that the Invaders might seek to radicalize the strikers and their supporters. And for that reason, the folks in Memphis's police department's, what was it, the intelligence bureau, asked if my father would be willing to get to know the folks in this group and listen and report back on what they were planning to do.
Andrew Hammond: It's quite fascinating because he's there because the Invaders are a Memphis based group and he's asked to go undercover with them. So it's complete coincidence that Dr. Martin Luther King turns up to get involved in the sanitation workers' strike, which that's the reason why he's at the Lorraine Hotel, right?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes, that's right. And so, really, you know, to understand the context, you know, you've got to understand that the sanitation strike, this was something that was unprecedented in Memphis history. That you would have, you know, a group of black workers who worked for the city, and I mean, these are essentially the least of these in Memphis. Who decide that they're no longer going to take their poor working conditions, their poverty wages and just the dehumanizing treatment that they're getting. They're not going to take it anymore and they just essentially walk off the job, they don't even take a vote. And they want to unionize, they want a unions due checkoff, they want better treatment, and they want better pay. And so, you know, going on strike, they end up going head to head with the city. And in particular, the mayor of the city, Henry Loeb, who is adamant that he's not going to negotiate with them. He is extremely patronizing to them. I mean, this is a segregationist mayor. And he does not respect them. And so, he will not give one inch. And so, things just kind of stall in the city. And they reach this point where, you know, the garbage isn't getting picked up, the city's trying to hire scabs. You know, the mayor won't budge. The workers won't budge. But the strikers can't seem to get national eyes on their cause, which will give them the leverage to bring something to the bargaining table to tell the mayor look, you have to negotiate with us. You have to respect us. Until Dr. King enters the picture. There is a group of ministers in the city who organize this group called Community on the Move for Equality. And it's through these ministers that, in fact it was James Lawson, who is, you know, of course a lion of the Civil Rights Movement, who innovated, you know, during the sit-ins in Nashville. And kind of brought this non-violent action method into popular usage. He is a key member of this Community on the Move for Equality. And so he also happens to be friends with Dr. King. And through his invitation, Dr. King comes to Memphis to lend his support to the striking sanitation workers. And in fact, their cause is something that dovetails very nicely with a cause that he is promoting, Dr. King is promoting his Poor People's Campaign. Which is taking on the economic exploitation of marginalized people. And so Dr. King comes to Memphis and with Dr. King, of course, comes national attention and comes leverage on behalf of the striking sanitation workers. And so that is why you have Dr. King in Memphis at the same time that you have, you know, these other actors, other social activists, including the Invaders and my father's infiltration in this group happening at the same time.
Andrew Hammond: And you're actually from Memphis, aren't you, Leta? Originally?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: That's right.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. And I think it would be quite interesting, you know, could you just place Memphis and Tennessee within the context of the Civil Rights Movement? So some people will have heard of the, you know, Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, or the school in Little Rock a little bit earlier, or North Carolina and the counters and so forth. But just briefly, just place Memphis and Tennessee within the context of this broader Civil Rights struggle that's taking place in this period.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Right. And all of these cities that you named, all these places, you know, are well known in the Civil Rights Movement for the various things that happened. You know, North Carolina, you know, the sit-ins. Nashville, of course the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You know, Birmingham, places like that. Whereas Memphis was not necessarily what you would consider like, you know, a marquis sort of place for these kinds of actions. I mean, certainly there were plenty of things that happened in Memphis. You know, along these lines. You know, Memphis had sit-ins. In fact, one of the first Civil Rights actions during this time were people were arrested in Memphis was at a library where people, you know, black people were not allowed to use all of the library facilities. And so folks came in, young people in particular, and sat in and got arrested as a result. And so Memphis was far quieter, I would say, compared to some of these other, you know, places that are well-known. At least in terms of kind of the nationally known, historic Civil Rights events. And that's part of what made the sanitation strike so kind of surprising and unprecedented. It's because Memphis was kind of seen as, you know, this town where everybody kind of gets along. And you know, our folks are happy. You know? It was seen as kind of a sleepy place, but this place where you didn't have these clashes that you would have seen in other cities. And so, when the sanitation workers finally said enough, and we're not going to take this anymore, this was really kind of the first big event that, I mean, you could say really, it was the crossroads of, you know, a labor action and a Civil Rights action.
Andrew Hammond: Please correct me if I'm wrong, which I probably am. But if I remember, reading about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, the sanitation workers, sanitation workers' strike, this comes at a period when Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement more generally, there's, you know, activism because of the Vietnam War and so forth. But this is a moment when Dr. King is really focusing on socioeconomic rights. You know, we need to start here on the home front, you know, there's people that are dying overseas for a country, and when they come back to the country, they don't have an equal fitting in society. So could you just briefly place the sanitation workers' strike in the context of the broader Civil Rights Movement? Like where are we in the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement when the sanitation workers' strike happens?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Right. So, you know, we are in February 1968. And so at this point, we've gone, you know, far beyond, in some ways far beyond and in some ways maybe not so far beyond, but you know, Brown v. Board. We've gone beyond the sit-ins. You know, now desegregation in law, if not in practice, really, you know, has won the day. And so things are, you know, opening up in that way. Voting rights, you know, there's been legislation on that. Dr. King is facing some headwinds. Because, you know, now with the Vietnam War, as you mentioned, you know, he has taken a stand against the Vietnam War, which he takes a lot of heat for. Including, you know, folks who normally were with Dr. King. You know, this is a very controversial stance. Dr. King also has really expanded his message, I mean, he always, you know, has had this message of, you know, equity in all sort of, you know, layers of life. You know, including economics and so forth. But he has now been very vocal about, you know, economic justice as well as he's taken on this anti-war, anti-militarism stance. In fact, it was one year to the day before he was assassinated, so this would have been April 4th, 1967, that he gave a very famous speech in New York City at Riverside Church, where you know, he condemned the United States for its actions in Vietnam. You know, and you know, he is decrying the militarism of this country. And then, you know, of course, he is trying to introduce a Poor People's Campaign. He has envisioned a mule train of people that he's going to lead from Marks, Mississippi to Washington DC. Where they're going to, you know, set up a, like a tent city. And they're going to stay there to sort of protest, you know, with their voices and with their very presence there, the lack of economic justice in America. And this is something that has, you know, law enforcement folks and the FBI very unsettled as well. And so, Dr. King is under more intense scrutiny perhaps than he ever has been. And at the same time, he is getting criticism from some folks who are saying he's not radical enough. That, you know, you have folks coming from a more militant side, you know, including sort of Invaders types of folks, Black Panthers types of folks, who are saying, you know, non-violence doesn't work. And so, you know, they're saying well, you know, this country's violent with us and we need to be able to defend ourselves. And so in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, and you know, Dr. King's work, you know, we're really kind of in the latter stages. You know, where various streams of work, various streams of ideas are kind of coming together into this pinpoint, you know, this place of you know, economic justice, which would include, you know, the labor movements. And which would include also, you know, anti-militarism, you know, as well as traditional just civil rights, equal rights, and humanity. People being treated with dignity.
Andrew Hammond: I find that just really fascinating that you know, around this period in the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement, and it's not long before this that he gives the famous Mountaintop Speech and you know, people have looked at that in some ways as being prophetic. You know, he says, you know, longevity has its place. I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. And if you watch that speech, there's almost this look in his eye that he's, I don't know, he's at a particular place in his journey. So it's really, really fascinating to me that, you know, your book, because this is really capturing the essence of this period where Dr. King is cut down. So there's a couple of things I want to touch on there. So one is the way that he's unsettling the power establishment or the power structure because he's going after the Vietnam War, he's going after socioeconomic equality. We've already had the Voting Rights Act in the Severed Rights Act under LBJ. But then the other, I think the other part of it is, the conspiracy theories. So let's just get them out of the way. Because I guess some people would include your father in part of this, why would an undercover police officer just be, happen to be standing over Martin Luther King? So let's just get the conspiracy theories out of the way and then we can move on to discuss COINTELPRO and other reasons why Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement was under the gaze of the intelligence establishment.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes. So, certainly, you know, there have been, you know, many conspiracies. One of the most, I guess, prominent ones would be the claims of a man named Loyd Jowers. Who ran a restaurant called Jim's Grill, which was on the ground floor of a rooming house that James Earl Ray was convicted of shooting and killing Dr. King from. A bathroom window in this same rooming house. Well, Loyd Jowers made some claims, various claims, some of which were, you know, convoluted and conflicting. But essentially what he says is that various members of law enforcement, including Memphis police officers, to include my father, went into Jim's Grill and planned, you know, various parts of the assassination of Dr. King. These claims have been aired out in various places, you know, in the media. And then also in a civil trial. The King family, Coretta Scott King and some of -- well, Dr. King's siblings, or I'm sorry, children brought a civil case in Memphis claiming wrongful death across Loyd Jowers and certain unnamed co-conspirators. And so, this was a trial where, you know, these claims were once again aired out but in a court of law before a jury. Dr. King's family sought 100 dollars in nominal damages. And they won that case. And they got the 100 dollars in nominal damages. At the same time, there was a United States Department of Justice investigation, reinvestigation, into the murder of Dr. King. And in part of that investigation, they looked that the claims of Loyd Jowers and they looked at the civil trial, and DOJ found that Loyd Jowers's claims were not valid and that essentially, the findings of that jury were not considered, you know, reliable. So, this is just kind of a flavor of, you know, how these conspiracy theories have kind of unfolded and played out. And I mean, there are various others, there are folks who, you know, have these different angles. I mean James Earl Ray himself, who was convicted of the murder, went on later to make claims that he was, you know, he was innocent or that there was someone else who was involved in this. And you know, a lot of these claims end up, you know, conflicting or contradicting each other in various ways. So it ends up kind of, to my mind, a web of, you know, various theories that are not substantiated.
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Andrew Hammond: And for our listeners, like it's generally 50% American and 50% overseas. So just briefly, can we just establish a few flags in the ground just for our overseas listeners in case they're not familiar with the story? So Martin Luther King, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, I'm sure most people around the world have heard of him. He's assassinated on April the 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. And the person who kills him, James Earl Ray, can you just tell us just a little bit like how does he die, why does James Earl Ray kill him, what do you see the facts pointing towards as opposed to the conspiracy theories that we just spoke about?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Right. Well, the facts as we know them are that James Earl Ray was a man who at least had some racist views. You know, some may argue that perhaps he didn't express such an extreme amount of racism that he would have murdered someone, but at any event, he had some racist views. He escaped from the penitentiary in the state of Missouri, went on the run. And at some point, apparently wound up stalking the movements of Dr. King and traveling from ultimately Los Angeles, back east toward, you know, the areas where, you know, Dr. King was going to be. During his travels, ended up picking up a firearm, I believe it was a 30-06 rifle. And ends up traveling to Memphis during the time when Dr. King's travels are likewise taking him to Memphis. He rents a room at this rooming house that's right across the way from the balcony area of the Lorraine Motel, where you know, ultimately he sites Dr. King as he emerges on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on the evening of April 4th, 1968. And James Earl Ray is, now he's in the bathroom of this rooming house, you know, and he's kind of pointing this weapon out of the little window. And he aims and fires and murders Dr. King. And so, after that, he reportedly takes the weapon, you know, drops it out, you know, in front of a building. Goes on the run. Goes on the lam. And is able to leave the United States. And winds up, I believe he had planned to ultimately flee to Rhodesia in Africa. But is arrested in, if I'm not mistaken, London. And is taken into custody back in Memphis, where he is to, you know, face the judicial proceedings, and he ends up pleading guilty to the murder. And is convicted. And ultimately dies in prison.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And in your research for your book, you never found any connection to, you know, some government agents, whether it be domestic or overseas or, you know, he's similar to Lee Harvey Oswald, he's just an independent actor propelled by hatred and ideology. Is that, how do you, did the facts go anywhere else or did they kind of really stop at him?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yeah. So I did not find any connection between him and any governmental agency. Believe me, I was looking, you know, I was trying to figure out, you know, like where does this come from? How does this happen? You know, and how is he able to maneuver this way having, you know, broken out of prison, and you know, he's on the lam this entire time and is able to still leave the United States and almost get away. But I didn't find any connection like that. As far as why he would have done it. Now that, to me, is a question that's not quite answered. And so, back in the 1970s, in the late 70s, the United States House of Representatives convened a select committee on assassinations. To investigate the assassination of JFK but also MLK. And so they looked at all of these things. To try to just unpack what happened and see, you know, try to get to the real story, the heart of, you know, what happened with the assassination. Including did James Earl Ray, did he commit the murder? And if so, did he act alone? Was there a conspiracy? And in their findings, you know, what they found was, you know, there were a number of unanswered questions. It's a question, you know, whether, for example, this man was so ideologically driven that that would have motivated him to murder Dr. King. The select committee also found the likelihood that there was some kind of conspiracy. Though, they found that if there were a conspiracy, it would have involved James Earl Ray's brothers. He had a couple of brothers who, you know, perhaps were working with him. Working with James Earl Ray, perhaps they thought they were going to get some kind of reward from white supremacists. You know, it was known that there were various racist groups that, you know, would love to see Dr. King be killed and would offer money for that. So perhaps they believed that they could collect some funds doing this. But again, this is all just conjecture. There's no real evidence to support much more than what we have, you know, on the record as far as James Earl Ray pleading guilty. And you know, what the FBI was able to determine. Which by the way, I mean, the FBI certainly, you know, one must consider the source there. Because, you know, you mentioned COINTELPRO. Well, they had a counterintelligence program, much of which was focused specifically on Dr. King, and which was focused on his downfall. So, to have these folks also in charge of solving the murder is problematic.
Andrew Hammond: And this is maybe a good point to just explain COINTELPRO to our listeners. And you know, just in the research I was doing for our conversation, Leta, I came across a quote that I had heard before but had forgot about it. And it's J. Edgar Hoover saying that Martin Luther King is quote, "the most dangerous negro," close quotes in America. So there's this, you know, there's this kind of focus on the Civil Rights Movement. There's this focus on Dr. Martin Luther King. Can you just tell listeners just briefly what COINTELPRO is?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes. So COINTELPRO was the FBI's counterintelligence program. Which consisted of abusive practices, extralegal practices that were bent on destroying activist movements, destroying people like Dr. King. People like black activists, black militant groups, student groups, such as the Students for a Democratic Society. And so, what they would do was dirty tricks, essentially. You know, planting stories in media. Trying to turn individuals against one another. Trying to divide groups. Spreading lies, spreading rumors, discrediting organizations in order to render them ineffective. And this was all the brainchild, you know, essentially of J. Edgar Hoover. Who, as you mentioned, said that, you know, quote, "we must mark him now," you know, mark Dr. King as the most dangerous negro alive. And so, they did all that they could to prevent Dr. King from effectively doing his work. But not only Dr. King, you know, as I said, you know, this went to all types of groups that were seeking social change. And going against the status quo. This was seen as dangerous. These folks were seen essentially as enemies.
Andrew Hammond: And this was such a fascinating and explosive year as well. So, January, you have the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. And you know, Walter Cronkite comes out and says the war's essential and unavoidable at this point. Then you have Dr. Martin Luther King assassinated in April. And then later in the year, you have President Nixon voted in. So it's just this really tumultuous year. But the Martin Luther King assassination's really, you know, that's really the heart of the whole story of that year, I think. Just tell us a little bit more about the social context of that year. Like the effect that the assassination had and where the country was at that point and where Memphis and Tennessee were at that point.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Right. As you mentioned, it was a time of great turmoil, great upheaval, you know, and in addition to all these things, you had urban uprisings. You had civil unrest, where people in many cities. A lot of black people, people of color, were taken into the streets to protest police brutality and other types of abuses that they were experiencing. Through 1967 into 1968 and you know, with Vietnam and you know, the various other things that happened. And then Dr. King is killed in April. And you know, that of course kicked off another wave of civil uprisings in various cities. You know, there were cities that burned. And Memphis was not among those, which is rather surprising in one sense, but not really when you consider, you know, the magnitude of what happened in that place, I think people were just stunned to the point where all that a lot of folks could do was really just mourn. And a lot of folks felt something, I imagine bordering on despair. You know, that if this man of peace, this man who, you know, he was trying to save lives, you know, he was against war and killing, he was of course against violence. And yet he is violently cut down. If this man is murdered in this way, then what hope does anyone have, you know, to peacefully bring change in this world?
Andrew Hammond: You know, this is something that you grew up with, Leta, growing up in Memphis, Tennessee. You grew up, you know about, you know, the legacy of Martin Luther King. But then can you tell our audience about how you find out about the role that your father played in this? And you know, just tell us a little bit more about how you came across this story.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Right. Well, so, my parents divorced when I was three years old. So I didn't grow up, you know, in the same household with my father. My mom took the kids from northern Virginia, which is where I was raised, back to her hometown of Memphis. And it was a rather acrimonious divorce. And so, to my mind, sort of the unsettled feeling and the disturbance around, you know, my father's work during that time was kind of bound up in these negative feelings about the divorce. So all I really knew was that my father was at the scene of this tragic event. I knew he was in this famous photo. My mother showed it to my little brother and me and said you know, this is your father. And he was a Memphis police officer. So that's all I knew. For many years. And it wasn't until I was a teenager and I was reading the newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, which you know, I kind of grew up in a newspaper household. My mom was a reporter for this newspaper, my stepdad worked there. And so, I would come home from school and read the newspaper. And I was paging through the newspaper and I saw an article, you know, about the assassination and oh, you know, look, it says here that there was a black police officer who was a mole in this militant group called the Invaders. And then I see my father's name. And that's how I found out that, you know, he wasn't just any Memphis police officer on the scene of the assassination. He was an undercover police officer. That's how I found out. No one ever mentioned this.
Andrew Hammond: And help our listeners understand the effect that this had on you. Because you know, you discussed this in the book. This, you grew up with one narrative, and then you find out that the narrative's actually different and the effect that this had on, you know, just on your understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and everything else that went on. So just help our listeners understand that kaleidoscope of feelings that you felt when you found out.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes. Kaleidoscope is a very good word to describe it. Because you know, I mean, growing up in Memphis, the assassination of Dr. King always loomed very large. And even though I wasn't born when it happened, it still nonetheless felt like part of my lived experience. I mean, you know, in the Civil Rights Movement, of course, Dr. King was, you know, and is one of the great heroes of not only civil rights but human rights. Not just American history or black history but world history. And so, you know, to have my father at the scene of the assassination was already something that was just, it weighed on me in a way. And yet, I was able to kind of push that feeling down and compartmentalize it. You know, put that away with some of the other negative feelings that I had, for example, around my parents' divorce. And only seeing him, you know, once or twice a year when he would come visit. And so, you know, I also, growing up in Memphis, had developed this early consciousness of the need for black liberation. And you know, just really feeling strongly about fighting for the rights of marginalized people. And I, you know, as a teenager, I started reading about the Black Panthers, I was really fascinated with them and their stance. And you know, kind of the self-defense aspect, and you know, the program that they had put together. They did a lot of good, you know, where they were. Well, and actually, not only where they were, but their influence spread across the country with the free breakfast program for children and various other things. Headstart. To find out from the newspaper that my father actually had infiltrated a group that to my mind was very similar to the Black Panthers in some respects, and was reporting to the police department to them, I had a hard time with that. I really could not understand how a black person could infiltrate a group that was ostensibly fighting for black liberation and report back on them to the police. And you know, I felt really like, you know, I wanted to get as far away from this story as possible. And so that went into that box of negative feelings that I had. And I just kind of said well, you know, that's him, that's not me. I had nothing to do with this. And in fact, I don't need to be involved with it at all. And I just hope that no one ever asks me about this. And that's really how I operated for many years. You know, up until I started, you know, having children. You know, by this time, you know, I'm in my mid-30s, I have a law career, I've just had my second child of three. And you know, I start to think about questions of legacy. And you know, it's one thing for me to, you know, go through my life just trying to distance myself from certain facts or not knowing certain things. But was it fair and was it right to pass that down to my children? You know, what could I tell them about their Grandaddy Mac? And I really didn't know. Because we had never, you know, my dad and I had never talked about what his experiences were. Why did he do the work that he did? And what exactly happened? Were the conspiracy theories true? You know, was there any element of truth to them? And so that is what led me to investigate the story and ultimately write the book.
Andrew Hammond: And did you find that writing the book, it was chathartic? Did it help to exercise some of those, some of those feelings? Or how did the book interact with your emotions and your experience?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes. I mean, the book was ultimately chathartic. However, that catharsis took place over a period of seven or so years. So, it was also, I mean, excruciating is a word that I sometimes use to describe certain parts of this process. I mean, so, the way that we began, my father and I, was I just called him up and had a very awkward phone conversation with him unlike any other that I'd had in my life. Where I said hey dad, you know, how you doing? Yeah, fine. So we never talked about the assassination of Dr. King. And so, I was hoping you'd tell me about that. And by the way, we've never even talked about your childhood at all. And so I would like to know about that as well. And so, you know, after some initial silence of you know, surprise, he said, well why don't we do this. I will send you some notes, and then you can read those, and then we'll go from there. And shortly after this conversation, I get this email and attached to it is a Word document with 17 pages of notes. And I mean, these notes start from, you know, Tibbs, Mississippi, 1944, you know, where he was born. And takes me, they take me through, you know, his whole, you know, childhood and upbringing and beyond. And initially I got those notes. And you know, immediately, I'm plunged into Jim Crow Mississippi, 1940s, poor family. Mac, my father, is one of 12 children. It starts off okay and then you know, he launches into this anecdote about the first time that he encountered white supremacy, which was at a young age of, you know, three or four. And it's so overwhelming to me that I cannot continue past this anecdote. This is one page three. And I'm just like I can't do this, you know. And briefly, the story is that my dad and his father, Walter, had just come from the cotton gin, you know, where they had, you know, they'd picked cotton, and they took it to the cotton gin. And then they went to a convenient, not a convenience store, but a, you know, like a store. Country store. To get some things. And there are these white men who are sitting on the porch of the store. And so they go in, they get what they need, and then they come out. And one of the white men offers my father a black cherry soda that this man had been drinking out of. And so my father, remembering that he was always told never to drink after people tells the man no, I don't want it. And he notices right away his father becomes very agitated. And he can't, my father cannot understand why his father's so upset. And why is he being made to take this drink when he's always been told not to do that? And it's just, you know, after I read that, I just said, you know, I'm just imagining, you know, what else is in these notes? This is only page three! We haven't even gotten anywhere near the assassination, by the way. And so, I just said you know what, I'll just come back to this when I'm ready. And that moment when I was ready didn't come for another five years.
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Erin Dietrick: Leta mentioned COINTELPRO a number of times in this episode. The FBI began COINTELPRO, short for counterintelligence program, in 1956, in order to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States. In the 1960s, it expanded to look at a number of other groups considered subversive. Most were part of what has been termed the new left, while a few were from the far right. Examples include the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the Nation of Islam, the American Indian Movement, Women's Liberation, the United Farmworkers, and the KKK. Its purpose was to disrupt, discredit, and divide these organizations through a variety of means, such as surveillance, infiltration, legal harassment, psychological warfare, and disinformation. The program came to an end in 1971, after activists broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania and passed material related to it to news organizations. Shortly afterwards, the program was terminated, and it would go on to be investigated by Congress in 1975. The longstanding director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, in office from 1935 until 1972, saw the hidden hand of communism and the Soviet Union behind the Civil Rights and Black Empowerment movements in particular. Which led to Martin Luther King being one of the most heavily surveilled figures by the FBI during this period. As the FBI website states, COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging First Amendment rights. As Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was assassinated, said, "When you have this feeling that the government is really watching you, taps your telephone, maybe in your text files, it has a chilling effect. It takes away your freedom. And often for leaders, none of us are perfect, it neutralizes people."
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Andrew Hammond: And I suppose, you know, for our listeners, one of the things that you would have asked him would have been how could somebody grow up in this, you know, shocking, racist environment in Mississippi, of this era, how could you quote-on-quote "working for the man" in you know, Memphis, Tennessee. So yeah, can you just briefly just tell us about the conversation and that kind of line of questioning?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Right. I mean, that was one of my main questions. I mean you personally experienced some of the worst, you know, that white supremacy has to offer, so how could you then turn around and you know, infiltrate this group and, you know, for the Memphis Police Department. And what I learned, though, was that its so much more complicated than that. It's so much bigger than that. That, you know, where my dad grew up in Mississippi, first of all, law enforcement was not something that a black person could do. Period. And in fact, the sheriff in my dad's county where he grew up was known for torturing and murdering black people. So law was not something that was really at all, I guess, upheld in anything approaching equity. Or anything enforcing fairness. It was just oppression. That was law and order for that place. And so you know, realizing that he would have no opportunities to become who he could become in this environment, you know, my father ended up, you know, enlisting in the Army. You know, did three years doing that, including overseas in Germany. And when he came back to the United States, he said I'm not going back to Mississippi where I have no opportunities. You know, oh, and I should mention that when he was in the Army, he ended up getting assigned to the military police. And this is actually essential, because you know, he didn't choose the military police, this was chosen for him. So he went to military police school. And was an MP. And so this was really his only professional experience, so to speak. So he comes out of the Army in 1967 and decides he's going to Memphis, which you know, compared to the Mississippi Delta, offers a lot of opportunity. And plus he has some relatives there. And so, you know, he goes to Memphis, stays with relatives, tries to get on his feet. And the first thing he does is try to find a job. Well, he can't find a job. No one will hire him. He's got a GED, he didn't finish high school for reasons that are, you know, in the book. He essentially was tricked into dropping out of high school. But he can't get hired for anything. And so, finally, one of his cousins takes pity on him. This cousin has a kind of management type position, so to speak, in one of these manual labor jobs. One of which is at a warehouse, and another one is at a motor boat repair shop. And so my father ends up working under him for, you know, minimum wage at the time. What was that? Like a dollar an hour or something like that. But you know, it gives him something to do and it gives him some, you know, pocket change. But I mean, this was what his job prospects were coming out of the Army. Then it just so happens they're riding to work one day, one of their two shifts that they work in a day. And they hear a police department recruiting ad on the radio. You know, and it's kind of like got these sirens playing in the background. Woo-woo! You know, be a Memphis police officer! And so his cousin, Eugene, turns to him and says hey, Mac, hey, weren't a military police officer? Maybe you ought to go down there and you know, apply to be a Memphis police officer. And my dad is just incredulous. He's like what? They're not going to hire a negro police officer. And Eugene says well you don't know that, you ought to at least go try. And so, to placate Eugene, Mac, my dad, says okay. Well, you know, since he believes in me, I'll go pick up the application. And so, he drops off Eugene at the warehouse and goes down to the Memphis Police Department headquarters, thinking he's going to walk out of there with an application. Well it's not nearly so simple. And long story short, he spends a full day in this process. This was the last day to apply for a spot on the force. And he has to jump through all these hoops, including taking the civil service exam that very evening. Mind you, he's dressed for the warehouse. He's got on like work boots, and you know, these clothes for, you know, this manual labor job. And you know, close to midnight, he gets out of, you know, this application process where he's taken the civil service exam. He's had to interview before a panel of the top brass of the Memphis Police Department. And he finds out he's been one of the folks selected to proceed and go into the Memphis Police Department Academy. Training academy. And so, this is how he winds up a Memphis police officer, one of the few black officers. This was not something he ever dreamed of doing or set out to do, but it was something that he could do. And that actually meant everything. You know? It was really important to understand, you know, what was it like being a black person, you know, black man at this time, you know, who essentially went through this pipeline from high school, not even graduating because of you know, this Bill of Goods that he was sold. Directly through to the military. Directly out of the military to these manual labor jobs that were low paid. Working two shifts in a day. So getting up before the sun comes up and working, you know, until the sun goes down. Doing that day after day with no end in sight. And then finally, you've got like this opportunity that is something that just comes out of, you know, left field and deciding, you know, you're going to go for it. And actually seeming to get somewhere. And you know, what was that like? And you know, what did you know and understand about law enforcement at that time versus, you know, the perspective that we have today? You know, I had to put myself in the mindset of somebody at that time. You know, this is of course, pre-, you know, George Floyd. But at the same time, there was plenty of police brutality to go around, there just weren't cell phones and you know, the consciousness socially just was not what it is today. And so, you know, the bar for law enforcement that my dad had was the sheriff that murdered a family friend in Mississippi. And so he's looking at the Memphis Police Department as something completely different. These folks have a training academy, they're professional. And by the way, they've hired a black man, me, to be a commissioned officer, which is a level of authority that would be unthinkable where I grew up. You know, even to this day, like, in 1967, '68 in the Mississippi Delta, I'm guessing this opportunity would not have been forthcoming. So, Memphis was seen for him, and the Memphis Police Department was seen as a step closer to the real law and order. Which is, you know, to his mind, the same laws being applied the same way, you know, fairly and equitably to all people every time. And not one group of people being a special class and the other group of folks being oppressed. So my father really, being 23 years old, you know, there's a level of naivety as well, but he really thought I can actually execute the law fairly. You know, I can enforce the law fairly. And what is wrong with that? What could possibly be wrong with that? And if I'm infiltrating a group to find out if they're going to commit crimes, what's wrong with that? You know, that's what he's thinking about because if they're going to commit crimes, well, the police department ought to know that. They ought to also know who's trouble and who's not, you know, who's planning on starting something, who's not so they can focus on the folks who are planning on starting something. And also, you know, if I just report back the truth of what I saw, then, you know, how is that problematic? So I mean, these are all considerations the ago into, you know, this story. And how things unfold.
Andrew Hammond: And just before we go on to discuss the CIA, I mean, I'm just thinking, it's an incredible generational journey that your family has been on, hasn't it? From your father's experience in the Mississippi Delta to obviously everything that he'd done with his life, and then you now. It's quite an intergenerational journey, isn't it? And then you also spoke about your kids.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes, it certainly is. And I think it just speaks to, you know, this kind of larger arc of history. You know, particularly of black Americans, but of all marginalized people. Where, you know, freedom is something has to be fought for, but we stand on the shoulders of those who fought before us. And we continue to fight for the generations that come after us. You know, I work and I fight for my kids. Because, you know, we can see now in the place in history that we are today. You know, these liberties that we have are not guaranteed. Just because time marches forward does not mean that we're going to be progressing in terms of our society. You know, and the rights that we hold. My father never really saw progress being made any other way than just this sort of slow push, you know. It's not a sea change, it's not like microwave justice. You know, it's, you know, it's incremental change and yet, I think it's got to be pretty amazing, you know, to him, to see what his children were able to do and the choices that they had, vis-a-vis what he had to come through to get there and the choices that he had at our ages.
Andrew Hammond: Then, can you go on to discuss your father as a CIA agent? Because that's another interesting part of the story we haven't got to yet. So, just to educate our listeners a little bit more about that.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yes. I mean, that's another kind of uncanny part of the story where people were like well, you know, okay, so I'll grant you going up to the, you know, your father's presence at the Lorraine and even being an undercover officer on the balcony. But then he goes on to become a CIA officer, how does that happen? Because that just seems a bit weird, to be honest. Well, you know, it really is uncanny. And similar to his, you know, entree onto the police force, this was not something that my father set out to do. This was not a career aspiration, I want to join the CIA. This was never even in his mind. In fact, he had aspired to become an FBI agent. I mean, because he thought, you know, that's the next natural step for a police officer. And in the Memphis Police Department, you know, this was kind of seen as kind of the next step, you know, you've graduated from local law enforcement and now you're going to the FBI. That department has a close relationship with the Memphis field office of the FBI. And in his undercover work, my father worked with a couple of special agents. And so, you know, when he, you know, worked at the police department for several years and saw that he really wasn't getting anywhere, he saw he was hitting a ceiling career wise, and that really, the opportunities for black people were pretty limited there, he decided well, it's time for me to move on. Why don't I go to the FBI? You know, they know me. And I know them. And you know, I have experience. And so, he applied and more or less got ghosted. I mean, they made up this, you know, excuse why, you know, they had some problem with his application. Which was, it was clearly just a pretext to reject him. I mean, looking back, knowing what we know about J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, you know, and in fact, you know, we know specifically that they, you know, there was an atmosphere that was very much against recruiting, you know, black FBI agents. You know with any responsibility. So yeah, there was no way. But he didn't know that. He thought okay, you know, plus the federal government was kind of seen as a check against, you know, local law enforcement in some of these, you know, racist towns and cities. You know, the FBI was kind of seen, and the federal government generally, was seen as kind of more of a friend to black people in some respects. But yeah, he got ghosted. And so he, you know, he's just a patrolman. He ends up working vice and narcotics. Doing drug busts. He's got a partner, Billy Jack he calls him. So they're Dirty Mac and Billy Jack. You have this duo. And they're running informants and executing search warrants and arresting people and all this. But you know, my father's not satisfied with his career. He would love to move upward. But you know, he still hasn't heard anything from the FBI. Seems like he's not going to hear anything. And so, it just so happens one day, you know, he's got this guy who's doing ride-alongs with police department officers. His name is Dr. Oswald. And he is a doctor. He's a medical doctor. But the Memphis Police Department has engaged him to conduct a study about the police officers and the department and you know, their, the officers' lives and so forth. So, Dr. Oswald does these ride-alongs. So he's riding along with dad and Billy Jack. And you know, he knows a little bit about their lives from their conversations during the shift. And so, he says, you know, hey, Mac, you know, how's that FBI thing coming? And my dad says, nothing's happening. You know, I've heard nothing. And he says well, you ought to just forget about the FBI and you ought to apply with the CIA. And he doesn't know anything about the CIA, he's just like, you know, what do they do? They do like paramilitary stuff? Like he doesn't know. And it just didn't seem like something that somebody with a law enforcement background with, you know, naturally kind of go into. But, after thinking about it for a while, he just decides ah, what the heck, you know? So he sends this query letter. And what he does is, you know, because he decides, you know, they're going to want to confirm his identity. And so he puts his she will security number or whatever in there. And then he says oh, wait, you know, I've got a photograph where, you know, I'm at the scene of the assassination of Dr. King from the Lorraine. And you know, that's me. And so, he finds, you know, some magazine or whatever where he's got this photograph. He cuts it out and puts it in the letter. You know, and he writes, you know, to further establish, you know, my identity or whatever, I'm enclosing a photograph that you may have seen, you know, and I'm in it. And he sends off this letter and he just waits. You know. But unlike his application with the FBI, he gets a phone call from a recruiter out of Kansas City. Who says yeah, you know, we got your letter. And I would like to meet you for breakfast. And so that's how the whole process begins of his recruitment. And this goes very differently, of course, than the FBI did. I mean, they, you know, they are keeping him engaged. He goes through interviews. He takes this professional aptitude test battery. And they're staying in touch with him, sending him little postcard like you know, your application is still in progress. And so, he ultimately ends up getting hired. This is in 1974 when he finally starts. And so, I mean, what a strange trajectory. What an unplanned trajectory. But that is the story.
Andrew Hammond: And can you tell the listeners what your father does for the CIA and where he goes and how long he's in?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Yeah. So he ends up there from 1974 through 1999. I believe he retired in '99. And then he stays on contract for a period of time after that. And during that time, you know, he starts off in their Office of Security. You know, which is responsible for, you know, securing facilities, information, things like that. And he rises through the ranks. He faces certainly, you know, various challenges along the way. But he ends up going into the clandestine service. You know, Director of Operations in the 80s. Does that for a while. Works overseas, including in Africa. Then comes back to the United States, goes back to the Office of Security. Works and works, everything is going swimmingly until, you know, once again, he hits this ceiling. You know, in a rather dramatic way. I mean, it's kind of dramatic but kind of banal at the same time, you know. Same old thing. And then goes, you know, after he hits that ceiling, you know, he works for a little while longer. Goes to the Inspector General's Office for a stint. Comes back to security. And retires with honor.
Andrew Hammond: Wow, what a story. And am I right in thinking that you've done a couple of summer internships with the CIA?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: I certainly did.
Andrew Hammond: Can you tell us a little bit more about them?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: I sure can. I was just an intern. So, you know, I mean --
Andrew Hammond: Were you ever tempted?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: I was? I was. Because you know, looking back, this, these are some of the best jobs I ever had. I mean, in my entire career. Now I can look back and look at like, I mean, and I had some great jobs, don't get me wrong. I love the law firms and things, I worked for a non-profit and various things like that. And I do like being a writer. But in terms of just the work environment, the culture, I loved interning at the CIA. I mean, I just thought it was a really cool place to work. I loved the people, what they do is very fascinating. It's super important clearly. But I decided that it just didn't seem to be the path for me.
Andrew Hammond: And what does the future hold for you now, Leta? Do you have another book I mind or have you got another idea on the hopper so to speak?
Leta McCollough Seletsky: I do have another book in mind. And I am really at the very beginning stages of sketching it out. This is a novel.
Andrew Hammond: Okay.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: It touches on similar themes to "The Kneeling Man" actually. In fact, I would say, you know, it's a little bit like "The Kneeling Man" in the context of journalism. Like "The Kneeling Man" meets "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" a little bit, you know? It's going to be set in Memphis. And so, I'm very excited. I think it's going to be a lot of fun.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much for speaking to me. I really enjoyed our chat. And I've learned a lot and yeah, thanks for sharing your story.
Leta McCollough Seletsky: Thank you very much, it's been a pleasure.
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Erin Dietrick: Thanks for listening to this episode of SpyCast. Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Coming up on next week's show.
Jorhena Thomas: All my time with the FBI really gave me an appreciation for just partnerships and understanding everyone has a role to play. And if you respect what they do, and they respect what you do, then you can really get some good work done. And I think sometimes people look down on others who don't do what they do.
Erin Dietrick: If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @INTLSpycast. If you go to our page thecyberwire.com /podcasts/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, and full transcripts. I'm Erin Dietrick, and your host is Dr. Andrew Hammond. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Afua Anokwa, Elliott Pelzman, Tre Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage related artifacts, the International Spy Museum.
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