The photograph taken after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Lorraine Motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, is one of the most recognizable of the 20th century. As the civil rights leader lay dying, people nearby pointed to something out of frame while one man knelt at King’s side. The photo captures a tragic moment in history, but for Leta McCollough Seletzky, the image is particularly haunting—because her father was the one trying to administer first aid. As she writes in her absorbing memoir, The Kneeling Man, “For my family, the assassination was a lifelong wound, something we didn’t touch for fear of aggravating it.”
Seletzky wasn’t born until eight years after King’s death, and her parents split up when she was 3. Her father, Marrell “Mac” McCollough, took a job with the CIA, moved to Washington, D.C., and didn’t see much of his daughter. As an adult, however, Seletzky began questioning him about his life, especially about his time working for the Memphis Police Department before she was born. In 2015, she began an intensive interviewing, research and writing project that resulted in this account, which not only chronicles her father’s life but also reckons with his role in history.
Mac was the ninth of 12 children born to parents who rented 40 acres of Mississippi farmland from a white man who lived in Memphis. Growing up, his focus was on getting his high school diploma and then his college degree, goals that were not easily achieved. At the time of King’s assassination, Mac was 23 years old and beginning to take part-time college classes while working as an undercover cop to infiltrate a group of Black activists called the Invaders. 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.
While Seletzky keeps the focus on her father’s story, his experiences and observations make intriguing contributions to the MLK assassination canon. For example, Mac observed that the bullet that killed Dr. King exploded on impact, which is the sort of technology he believed wasn’t sold in gun stores at that time. When Seletzky told civil rights activist Andrew Young that she wanted to know what really happened that night, he advised, “No, you don’t.” In a later conversation, he indicated that he wasn’t convinced that James Earl Ray, King’s convicted killer, was the one who pulled the trigger.
Near the end of her book, Seletzky admits, “I’d jumped into Dad’s story not knowing what I’d find and afraid of what I might uncover.” Thankfully she persevered, growing closer to her father in the process. The Kneeling Man will enlighten generations to come about a pivotal, disturbing moment in our nation’s history.