The Kneeling Man

My Father's Life as a Black Spy Who Witnessed the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Book Description

“This untidy, honest, fascinating account compels the reader to reflect on profound questions of loyalty and race . . . All of us want to see our parents as heroes. It is to Ms. Seletsky’s great credit that she explores the depths of her father’s story with love, hope and critical realism.” —The Wall Street Journal

The intimate and heartbreaking story of a Black undercover police officer who famously kneeled by the assassinated Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr—and a daughter’s quest for the truth about her father

In the famous photograph of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, one man kneeled down beside King, trying to staunch the blood from his fatal head wound with a borrowed towel.

This kneeling man was a member of the Invaders, an activist group that was in talks with King in the days leading up to the murder. But he also had another identity: an undercover Memphis police officer reporting on the activities of this group, which was thought to be possibly dangerous and potentially violent. This kneeling man is Leta McCollough Seletzky’s father.

Marrell McCollough was a Black man working secretly with the white power structure, a spy. This was so far from her understanding of what it meant to be Black in America, of everything she eventually devoted her life and career to, that she set out to learn what she could about his life, his actions and motivations. But with that decision came risk. What would she uncover about her father, who went on to a career at the CIA, and did she want to bear the weight of knowing?

About the Author

Praise For This Book

BCALA Literary Award Winner
Ms., A Most Anticipated Title of the Year

Library Journal, A Best Book of the Year
BookPage, A Best Nonfiction Book of the Year

"This untidy, honest, fascinating account compels the reader to reflect on profound questions of loyalty and race . . . All of us want to see our parents as heroes. It is to Ms. Seletzky’s great credit that she explores the depths of her father’s story with love, hope and critical realism.” —Johnathan Eig, The Wall Street Journal

"Marrell 'Mac' McCollough, who had infiltrated a militant Black Power group, went on to become a CIA agent. He was allowed to tell his daughter who employed him, but not what his mission was. She saw him intermittently and only pieced together the story of his life in fits and starts over several years. Sometimes she was reluctant to know the full truth, but in the end she felt compelled to write an engrossing narrative that adumbrates the story of a life that becomes her own." —Carl Rollyson, The New York Sun

The Kneeling Man portrays the legacy of a troubled time, at once an intimate family history and a chronicle of how race remains a sharp dividing line in American society." —Dale Singer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"The Kneeling Man is an impressive account of a man who began life in poverty, played a unique role in civil rights history, overcame precedent and prejudice in the Memphis Police Department, had a remarkable CIA career, and retired with dignity." —Hayden Peake, Studies in Intelligence

"[Leta McCollough Seletsky] digs deep and casts wide. Part history, part memoir, part meditation on race and America, the book is a gripping account of a complicated city in a tumultuous moment, with implications into the present day." —Aram Goudsouzian, Chapter 16

"An absorbing memoir . . . Seletzky’s detailed yet fluid prose shapes her father’s story into a compelling narrative arc—beginning with his birth in Mississippi and ending with his 1999 retirement from the CIA—while holding space for her to grapple with Mac’s history as a Black man spying on Black Power activists for the police . . . The Kneeling Man will enlighten generations to come about a pivotal, disturbing moment in our nation’s history." —Alice Cary, BookPage (starred review)

"Powerful, well-organized, and fast-moving . . . Seletzky’s compelling account of the story of the sanitation workers’ strike, the Reverend King’s profound leadership, and efforts to overcome racism in Memphis are richly enlightening and may help illuminate the underlying causes of the January 2023 Memphis police murder of Tyre Nichols." —Booklist (starred review)

"A well-documented and researched narrative of McCollough’s life, from impoverished sharecropping child to an eventual career in the CIA . . . It paints a vivid and gripping picture of Black life at that time, rife with racism, injustice, and moral ambiguity . . . This book is perfect for anyone seeking to understand the historical period and what it means to be Black in the United States." —Library Journal

"Seletzky debuts with an intriguing study of her father, Marrell 'Mac' McCollough, a police officer and CIA agent who was seen kneeling over Martin Luther King’s body in a famous photograph taken just after the civil rights leader was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968 . . . The result is a nuanced and insightful look at the complex spaces African Americans have navigated in the pursuit of racial justice." —Publishers Weekly

"As reconstructed by his daughter, the life of an undercover police officer present at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr . . . Seletzky’s approach is nuanced, weaving her father's story and its many loose threads into her own . . . Students of 1960s anti-war movements and civil rights history will find useful information in this revealing footnote." —Kirkus Reviews

"An important and moving book that everyone should read. Leta is a talent." ––Molly Jong-Fast, author of The Social Climber's Handbook

“Get comfortable, because once you start reading you will not be able to put this book down. The Kneeling Man is a spellbinding account of a daughter piecing together her father’s mysterious role witnessing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. With gorgeous prose and emotional honesty, Leta McCollough Seletzky brings us on her journey to uncover deeply hidden family secrets and better understand our own.” —Jennifer Taub, author of Big Dirty Money and Other People’s Houses

"Millions of people recognize the photo, but until now hardly anyone has known the incredibly fascinating life story of the man at the center of it: undercover cop and future CIA agent Marrell McCollough. His daughter Leta captures the complexity and humanity of her father's life in this deeply engrossing narrative, which is both an important work of history and an unforgettable family story." ––David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing the Cross and The F.B.I. and Martin Luther King, Jr.

"In The Kneeling Man, Leta McCollough Seletzky mixes reportage with personal reflection, helping readers understand a famous photograph of the assassination of Martin Luther King by deftly exploring what exists outside the frame of the image. Through her deep dive into her father’s connection to that photograph—and by engaging with the harsh realities of the Southern past and civil rights era—Seletzky links her present with her father’s past by seeking to learn the truth about both, no matter how untidy or unpleasant that might be. This is a brave book." —W. Ralph Eubanks, author of A Place Like Mississippi and Ever Is a Long Time

"A searing portrait of a man divided between his country and his identity. At once historical and timely, Seletzky gifts us a captivating, charged and wholly nuanced narrative that grips you from the first page and does not let go." —Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of A Kind of Freedom and On the Rooftop

"The Kneeling Man, the captivating true story of Leta McCollough Seletzky's father, a Memphis police officer who witnessed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, is a spy thriller and an intimate family portrait set deep in the Jim Crow south and an extraordinary inquiry of the civil rights movement in Memphis. Seletzky's power is telling those details that bring the past into resonance, causing us to think and to feel in equal measure. Painstakingly researched and absolutely riveting, The Kneeling Man is one of those rare books that feel electric before you read the first page and long after you set it down. We'll be talking about this book for a long time." ––Lauren Hough, author of Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing

The Kneeling Man is the heretofore unknown story of a chapter of American history. It tells the life story of the author’s father, Marrell 'Mac' McCollough, a witness to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the iconic photo of Dr. King lying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in a pool of his blood, the man kneeling beside him is Marrell McCollough. The backstory to this historical image is that Mr. McCollough was an undercover Memphis police officer working on a local Black militant group known as the Invaders. Mr. McCollough is one of those unsung American heroes who history either ignores or has inadvertently forgotten. The telling of his unique story; from Mississippi childhood to the U.S. Army to the Memphis Police Department to the CIA, Mr. McCollough has lived the quintessential American life—NOT as a Black man but as an American—is inspiring and revelatory. He is a TRUE American hero! I wholeheartedly recommend Ms.Seletzky’s wonderful, thought provoking memoir of her father.” ––Ron Stallworth, author of Black Klansman