Photograph of MLK assassination inspired memoir by Walnut Creek-based writer
By Lou Fancher
The story begins with a photograph, followed by decades of “silences and secrets.”
Out of that came 17 pages of notes left for Walnut Creek-based writer and litigator-on-hiatus Leta McCollough Seletzky, which catapulted her into a whirlwind of research, interviews and travel to unravel the truth behind the image.
Eventually, the story of how her father came to be the man in the photograph pressing a towel to the jaw of Martin Luther King Jr. just moments after the civil rights leader was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968 became a memoir, “The Kneeling Man: My Father’s Life as a Black Spy Who Witnessed the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Counterpoint Press).
Seletzky is a graduate of Northwestern University and George Washington University Law School. As an essayist, her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Washington Post and more. Growing up primarily in Memphis, her adult life and career have taken Seletzky to Washington, D.C., Illinois, Texas, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Nevada and California. Married to corporate compliance lawyer Dimitri Seletzky, the couple are parents of three sons, ages 5, 13 and 15.
“We ended up in Walnut Creek because my husband’s job took us to the Bay Area,” she said. “We were looking for a place with a reasonable commute and a lifestyle for our kids that has schools, parks, playgrounds, family-friendly neighborhoods. We have almost an acre of land, with chickens and a garden. There are shops, the arts — a lot to draw us here.”
What happens in Kneeling Man is history brought to life.
Seletzky begins the memoir with the scene captured in the photograph and encountered by her father, Marrell “Mac” McCollough, a Memphis police officer and later CIA agent. At the time of the King assassination, he had infiltrated a militant Black activist group known as the Invaders. Weaving an intricate narrative, Seletzky blends personal memories and reflections with facts — about the Invaders, the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, her ancestors’ and parent’s lives in the Deep South, and her father’s dilemmas as a Black man balancing a law enforcement career and personal ethics in the still-highly segregated worlds of Black and White society in the 1960s and beyond.
Gradually, Seletzky’s understanding of the motivations and forces impacting her father’s choices and long silences deepens as she finds connection to her own experiences as a Black woman. She writes, “When it comes to my father, Black people, and American history, I have a point of view. Quite literally, I have skin in the game.”
“Writing this book helped me because with writing and reading comes empathy,” she said. “I could understand on a much deeper level than if I had left it with the 17 pages of notes he left me. His life was circumscribed by outside factors — and also agency. I think of (Jean-Paul) Sartre’s ‘Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.’ My dad at his core was seeking freedom. He was 23 years old and had no idea what he was being placed into when he agreed (as the department’s only Black police officer) to go undercover. It was a rip current under a smoother, glassier surface. He thought he was enforcing laws equally to all people. He was sucked under; his choices constrained. But he didn’t drown either.”
A climactic scene in the book is from 2017, when Seletzky and her father met with former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. For the first time, the two men spoke about that fateful day nearly five decades prior spent together on a motel balcony.
“It was a moment when shadows were dispelled,” she said. “Once they met face to face, looked each other in the eye, the light of truth eliminated the shadows. Intellectually, emotionally, even on a spiritual level, it goes back to silences and secrets. Andrew Young has his own truths and my dad has his. Because of that gulf between them, we couldn’t rest without having this exchange and bridging everyone’s stories.”
As Seletzky learned the truth behind her father’s secret life, unexplained absences and mysterious activities as a Black spy, she gained perspective on her identity as a Black woman and writer. Speaking of the latter in reference to future books, she said, “What I would jettison from my process is trying to fit into a certain mold. For example, the ‘5 a.m. writers club.’ It’s not an actual club, of course, but I tried it because so many writers I admire adhere to that. I realized that’s not me. I’m a night owl. I learned to respect who I am.”
Respecting her practices meant writing whenever the muse hit and on whatever was available — the back of dry cleaner receipts, if necessary. “I will not feel sheepish about that. Shouldn’t a professional writer have a fancy notebook and pen? I don’t think there’s a ‘should,’ there’s just an ‘is.’ It’s about the work, not about the method.”
While licensed to practice in D.C., Virginia and Texas, Seletzky has no immediate plans to return to law. Yet as she gets cracking on her next book, a story about the rise and fall of a 1980s newspaper as seen through the lens of a Black, single mom reporter, she can’t resist dangling the possibility and said, “But who knows? Anything could happen.”
When speaking with her children about racism, sexism and other “isms” experienced by marginalized people, Seletzky is frank in age-appropriate ways. “We discuss what happened during our days, in the news, things we’ve read. Micro-aggressions and fine-grained assaults on the psyche will happen. We don’t have orchestrated conversations. Sadly, it’s just part of the world we live in. But the kids have a good sense of who they are and where they come from.”
Having been raised with silences and secrets, she’s aware and outspoken about the “armor” Black women often wear to navigate systems and societies designed to discriminate and even harm them.
Seletzky noted stories are like mirrors and by sharing even uncomfortable ones, people see themselves and the world around them with more compassion.
“There are forces today on systemic levels that don’t want people to look,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t allow those forces to conceal the truth or to destroy connections people need. Silencing is an attack on community, on connection with each other, ourselves, our histories, and the paths we’re on as individuals and as a society.”