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.
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.
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.”
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.