Tom Lankford, 85, Dies; Southern Journalist With Divided Loyalties

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tags: obituaries, civil rights, Alabama, journalism, Bull Connor

Tom Lankford, who as a reporter for The Birmingham News took some of the most memorable photos of the civil rights era even as he worked hand in glove with the city’s police department and the F.B.I., sometimes landing scoops in exchange for things like wiretapping members of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family, died on Dec. 31 in a hospital in Gadsden, Ala., about 50 miles northeast of Birmingham. He was 85.

The cause was complications of Covid-19, his daughter Dawn Bowling said.

As a young reporter and photographer assigned to the police beat at The News, Birmingham’s afternoon newspaper, Mr. Lankford was seemingly everywhere during the tumultuous early 1960s, including in 1961, when members of the Ku Klux Klan attacked Freedom Riders in Birmingham, and in 1965, when John Lewis led hundreds of marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, only to be assaulted by state troopers in what became known as Bloody Sunday. His photos of these and other events have become landmark images of the struggle against Jim Crow laws.

But all along, he was also developing a close transactional relationship with Birmingham’s police department under Eugene Connor, known as Bull, the racist public safety commissioner. As he later recounted to historians, he would ride shotgun on police raids, taking photographs that painted officers in a positive light while incriminating Mr. Connor’s enemies, Black and white. In exchange he was given access to scoops that other reporters could only dream of landing.

On one occasion, those ties probably saved his life. During the assault on the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, a group of Klansmen, seeing Mr. Lankford shooting pictures, dragged him into an alley. But before they could hit him, another Klansman said not to touch him, because he was “Bull’s boy.” They left him alone but took the film from his camera; one of them offered him a dollar as compensation, according to Diane McWhorter, who interviewed Mr. Lankford for the 2013 edition of her book “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.”

At the same time, as he recounted to Ms. McWhorter, Mr. Lankford worked as a one-man intelligence unit for Vincent Townsend, the powerful assistant publisher of The Birmingham News. Mr. Townsend was a racial moderate and no fan of Mr. Connor, but above all he wanted to keep tabs on anyone who might disturb the city’s business community. Mr. Lankford was happy to help, and used an expense account provided by Mr. Townsend to buy equipment to spy on civil rights leaders.

Read entire article at New York Times

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