The Kneeling Man
My Father's Life as a Black Spy Who Witnessed the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
One of Library Journal’s ’10 Books to Add to Your Collection’ for Black History Month 2023
A Ms. Most Anticipated Title of the Year
A gripping, intimate and unique view of the civil rights era, as a daughter uncovers the heartbreaking story of one Black man’s double life.
In the famous photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, one man kneels beside him, trying to staunch the blood: an undercover Memphis police officer embedded with the Invaders, a militant Black group in talks with King. This spy, the kneeling man, was Leta McCollough Seletzky’s father.
Marrell ‘Mac’ McCollough was a Black man working secretly with the white power structure. To understand this, Leta began looking into her father’s life—his motivations, his career with the police and the CIA, and the truth behind accusations of his involvement in King’s murder. What would Leta uncover, and did she want to know? How might Mac’s story change her own feelings about her place in Trump’s America?
The Kneeling Man is a compelling personal and political tale of alienation and ambivalence; struggle, self-definition and compromised choices. Set vividly in the sharecropper South, on the streets of Memphis and in the halls of power, the twists and turns of this one man’s life tell the story of twentieth-century Black America.
‘An honest, fascinating account [that] 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.’ — Wall Street Journal
‘A nuanced and insightful look at the complex spaces African Americans have navigated in the pursuit of racial justice.’ — Publishers Weekly
‘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 The Revisioners; A Kind of Freedom; and On the Rooftop
‘Mr. McCollough is one of those unsung American heroes either ignored or forgotten by history. The telling of his unique story is inspiring and revelatory. I wholeheartedly recommend Ms. Seletzky’s wonderful, thought-provoking memoir.’ — Ron Stallworth, author of Black Klansman
‘Seletzky’s approach is nuanced, weaving her father’s story and its many loose threads into her own.’ — Kirkus Reviews
‘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)
‘An absorbing memoir. . . Seletzky’s detailed yet fluid prose shapes her father’s story into a compelling narrative arc. . . The Kneeling Man will enlighten generations to come about a pivotal, disturbing moment in our nation’s history.’ — BookPage (starred review)
‘An honest, superbly written book about one man who believed the American Dream belongs to us all.’ — Chris Keil, Literary Hub
‘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
‘Millions recognize the photo, but hardly anyone knows the fascinating story of the man at its centre: undercover cop Marrell McCollough, in all his complexity and humanity. This deeply engrossing narrative 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.
‘An important and moving book that everyone should read. Seletzky is a talent.’ —Molly Jong-Fast, former editor-at-large, The Daily Beast, and author of The Social Climber’s Handbook
‘A brave book. Seletzky’s deep dive, engaging with the harsh realities of the historical South and the civil rights era, deftly links her present with her father’s past by seeking the truth about both, no matter how untidy or unpleasant.’ — W. Ralph Eubanks, author of A Place Like Mississippi and Ever Is a Long Time
‘A spy thriller, an intimate family portrait and an extraordinary inquiry, causing us to think and feel in equal measure. Painstakingly researched and absolutely riveting, this is one of those rare books that feel electric before you read the first page and long after you’ve set it down. We’ll be talking about this book for a long time.’ – Lauren Hough, bestselling author of Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing
‘A spellbinding account. With gorgeous prose and emotional honesty, 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
‘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.’ — The New York Sun
‘[Leta McCollough Seletzky] 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.’ — Chapter 16
Leta McCollough Seletzky is a National Endowment for the Arts 2022 Creative Writing Fellow. A litigator turned essayist and memoirist, she has written for The Atlantic; The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; and The Washington Post. She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and lives in Walnut Creek, California.