Beyond Conspiracy: Martin Luther King Jr. & the Black Undercover Spy

Marrell Mac’ McCollough was an undercover Memphis cop-turned-CIA officer who witnessed Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, but was Mac also an accomplice? His daughter set out to investigate the rumors and found a compelling story of Black America caught in the spying game. 

The US was changed forever by the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the iconic civil rights leader memorialized in January each year. For one woman, however, the murder became a haunting, lifelong connection to history.

Leta McCollough Seletzky is the daughter of Mac McCollough, the Black police officer sensationally photographed kneeling next to King and tending to his gunshot wound on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King died that evening and Mac’s involvement as an undercover police officer and later CIA spy led to a lifetime of accusations and conspiracy theories about his ties to King’s murder.

Leta, a lawyer and former CIA intern, decided decades later to uncover the truth about her father and family history - even if she didn’t like what she would discover. 

Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. Died
Mac McCollough kneeling next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr, April 4, 1968

From poverty to the police 

Born in 1944, Mac McCollough was the ninth of 12 children, the son of poor cotton farmers who endured prejudice while growing up in Mississippi. He served in the US Army and was assigned to the military police, his only professional experience, so when Mac left the military at age 23 he applied for the Memphis police. He saw it as a way out of poverty and a lifetime of earning the minimum wage.

The 1960s were a decade of unrest in America, an era of Vietnam protests, the Black Panthers, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and marches against discrimination and police brutality. Within months of graduating from the police academy Mac was assigned to spy on civil rights protesters, which is how Mac found himself in the company of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the fateful evening of April 4, 1968.

King was in town to support the Memphis sanitation strike in which black municipal workers - fed up with poverty wages and deadly, de-humanizing treatment - went head-to-head with Mayor Henry Loeb. King, who’d already condemned the US for its actions in Vietnam, was at the crossroads of a civil rights action and a labor protest, a powerful position that unsettled the establishment and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. 

True Spies podcast COINTELPRO
Listen to True Spies podcast COINTELPRO, Part 2: The Burglary



The Bureau was closely monitoring Black activists through COINTELPRO (short for the FBI Counterintelligence Program).

FBI Deputy Director William Sullivan had his eye on King in particular, even issuing a call-to-arms memo days after King’s iconic 1963 I Have A Dream speech: “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation.”

Mac McCollough, CIA officer
Marrell ‘Mac’ McCollough

MLK & The Invaders

When Mac McCollough infiltrated ‘The Invaders’ activists in 1968 - officially named the Black Organizing Project - the Memphis group was working with King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Mac’s undercover job was to find out if the Invaders were radicalizing strike supporters as he helped drive King's cohorts back and forth between the SCLC and the Lorraine Motel.

The dual role gave Mac a front-row seat to the Memphis civil rights struggle; he attended King's speeches in the weeks before King was killed and faced a moral dilemma. On the one hand, Mac understood the striking sanitation workers. On the other hand, Mac needed to earn a living to support his family and keep his wits about him as an undercover police officer.

Compartmentalization was key.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I have a dream' speech

Beyond Conspiracy: Martin Luther King Jr. & the Black Undercover Spy

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Marrell Mac’ McCollough was an undercover Memphis cop-turned-CIA officer who witnessed Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, but was Mac also an accomplice? His daughter set out to investigate the rumors and found a compelling story of Black America caught in the spying game. 

The US was changed forever by the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the iconic civil rights leader memorialized in January each year. For one woman, however, the murder became a haunting, lifelong connection to history.

Leta McCollough Seletzky is the daughter of Mac McCollough, the Black police officer sensationally photographed kneeling next to King and tending to his gunshot wound on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King died that evening and Mac’s involvement as an undercover police officer and later CIA spy led to a lifetime of accusations and conspiracy theories about his ties to King’s murder.

Leta, a lawyer and former CIA intern, decided decades later to uncover the truth about her father and family history - even if she didn’t like what she would discover. 

Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. Died
Mac McCollough kneeling next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr, April 4, 1968

From poverty to the police 

Born in 1944, Mac McCollough was the ninth of 12 children, the son of poor cotton farmers who endured prejudice while growing up in Mississippi. He served in the US Army and was assigned to the military police, his only professional experience, so when Mac left the military at age 23 he applied for the Memphis police. He saw it as a way out of poverty and a lifetime of earning the minimum wage.

The 1960s were a decade of unrest in America, an era of Vietnam protests, the Black Panthers, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and marches against discrimination and police brutality. Within months of graduating from the police academy Mac was assigned to spy on civil rights protesters, which is how Mac found himself in the company of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the fateful evening of April 4, 1968.

King was in town to support the Memphis sanitation strike in which black municipal workers - fed up with poverty wages and deadly, de-humanizing treatment - went head-to-head with Mayor Henry Loeb. King, who’d already condemned the US for its actions in Vietnam, was at the crossroads of a civil rights action and a labor protest, a powerful position that unsettled the establishment and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. 

True Spies podcast COINTELPRO
Listen to True Spies podcast COINTELPRO, Part 2: The Burglary



The Bureau was closely monitoring Black activists through COINTELPRO (short for the FBI Counterintelligence Program).

FBI Deputy Director William Sullivan had his eye on King in particular, even issuing a call-to-arms memo days after King’s iconic 1963 I Have A Dream speech: “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation.”

Mac McCollough, CIA officer
Marrell ‘Mac’ McCollough

MLK & The Invaders

When Mac McCollough infiltrated ‘The Invaders’ activists in 1968 - officially named the Black Organizing Project - the Memphis group was working with King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Mac’s undercover job was to find out if the Invaders were radicalizing strike supporters as he helped drive King's cohorts back and forth between the SCLC and the Lorraine Motel.

The dual role gave Mac a front-row seat to the Memphis civil rights struggle; he attended King's speeches in the weeks before King was killed and faced a moral dilemma. On the one hand, Mac understood the striking sanitation workers. On the other hand, Mac needed to earn a living to support his family and keep his wits about him as an undercover police officer.

Compartmentalization was key.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I have a dream' speech
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April 4, 1968: James Earl Ray’s fatal shot

Throughout King’s 39 years, he’d been arrested and imprisoned but on the evening of April 4, 1968, King was a free man on a visit to Memphis. Around 6 pm, King was leaning over the hotel balcony and chatting with a few people below. A bullet struck his neck and hurled him back with the force of the blast.

Mac McCollough’s military and police training kicked in. He ran for a hotel towel and tried desperately to stop the bleeding, all the while scouring the crowd for the gunman or gunmen. It was a historic moment captured by photographer Joseph Louw, one of the most notable photos of the 20th century. The chief suspect was James Earl Ray, a small-time crook staying at a boarding house on South Main Street where the single shot seemed to originate. Ray fled and was captured in Britain. He pleaded guilty, avoided the death sentence, then tried to clear his name.

Before King’s assassination, Mac had watched him deliver a speech in which King revealed he was ready if death came. He had gone “up to the mountain” and “seen the promised land,” King told the crowd. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Years later Leta McCollough Seletzky, then 17 and estranged from her father (her parents divorced and her mother remarried) read about her birth father in the local newspaper and the details of King’s assassination. She knew her father had worked as a police officer but discovered for the first time that Mac was working undercover at the Lorraine Motel. She was shocked but good at compartmentalizing feelings herself.

It wasn’t until Leta was in her mid-30s and had children of her own that she began considering her legacy and what she would tell her children about their grandfather. The questions had mounted up: How did her father justify reporting on Black activists who were fighting for equality? Why did he join the police force and later the CIA? Was he involved in MLK’s murder? Was there any truth to the conspiracy theories?

Leta, an alumna of George Washington University Law School, set about gently interrogating her father for the next seven years.

Kneeling Man book cover
Leta McCollough Seletzky, author of The Kneeling Man, explores the story behind the ‘68 MLK photo

Mac McCollough, undercover spy

In the years that followed, Leta and Mac discussed his upbringing and the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the US South until 1968. Mac McCollough opened up about his time in the US Army and Memphis police, including his feelings that he’d hit the glass ceiling at work. Mac wanted to work for the FBI - the next, natural step on his career path - but the Bureau ghosted him. Instead, Mac applied to become a CIA officer, sparking the breathless conspiracy theories and rumors that the Agency had played a sinister role in King’s murder.

Leta investigated those theories too, noting congressional panels and US Department of Justice investigators found nothing incriminating. Leta, a lawyer and former CIA intern herself, also found no links between Martin Luther King Jr’s death, the establishment, and her father.

Mac McCollough left the CIA with honor in 1999 after 25 years as an officer. Some of his clandestine work involved overseas operations, including in Africa. Mac retired to a small farm in rural South Carolina with his second wife and has no regrets about his life in the shadows.

“My father doesn’t feel that he betrayed his race or the civil rights movement,” Leta said after publishing their story in The Kneeling Man (2023). “He was simply reporting truthfully on the actions of a potentially dangerous militant group.” Mac admitted driving two Invaders to fire-bomb a Memphis politician’s home, although Leta insists: “He never instigated any action or took part in it.”

He said King’s assassination traumatized him and it became an albatross around his neck for years but he has nothing else to add.

“He’s read my book, and feels that it says all that he ever wants to say about Dr. King’s murder,” Leta said. “He’s ready to put it behind him. 

The Lorraine Motel is still standing in downtown Memphis, now a civil rights museum
The Lorraine Motel is now a civil rights museum

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