Those We’ve Lost
He took memorable photographs of the civil rights movement for The Birmingham News. But behind the scenes he was building dubious relationships with law enforcement.
The reporter and photographer Tom Lankford in an undated photo. He fostered a transactional relationship with the police and the F.B.I. that granted him access to scoops other reporters could only dream of landing.Credit…via Dawn Bowling
- Published Jan. 15, 2021Updated Jan. 17, 2021
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.
ImageOne of Mr. Lankford’s many photographs of the civil rights movement showed John Lewis, right, leading hundreds of marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965.Credit…Tom Lankford/The Birmingham News, via Associated Press
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.
Sometimes Mr. Lankford’s allegiances conflicted. In 1961, as part of a plan by Mr. Connor to undermine Tom King, a relatively progressive mayoral candidate whom Mr. Townsend backed, Mr. Connor arranged for a Black man to shake Mr. King’s hand unexpectedly. Mr. Lankford, positioned nearby, took a photo, copies of which Mr. Connor’s forces spread around town, implying that Mr. King was opposed to segregation. He lost decisively.
Then, a year later, during a vote over whether to do away with the city’s commissioner jobs — including Mr. Connor’s — Mr. Lankford wiretapped a meeting between Mr. Connor and leaders of the local firefighters union, a story he recounted for T.K. Thorne, a former Birmingham police officer and the author of the forthcoming book “Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days.” On the recording, Mr. Connor promised the firefighters a raise in exchange for their support. Mr. Lankford gave the tape to Mr. Townsend, who used it in a radio ad that helped sink Mr. Connor’s campaign. He left office in 1963, near the end of Martin Luther King’s campaign to desegregate Birmingham’s lunch counters and department stores.
Mr. Lankford always took pride in his reporting, which earned him at least eight awards from The Associated Press and other organizations. And he believed that despite modern ethical standards that would never condone such professional border crossing, his journalism helped push forward the civil rights movement in Birmingham.
Mr. Lankford photographed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left, with the Rev. Nelson H. Smith Jr. at New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1960.Credit…Tom Lankford/The Birmingham News, via Associated Press
“Tom considered himself, in his words, on the side of the good guys,” Ms. Thorne said. “But his vision might not match what most people think of as an ally.”
Thomas Earl Lankford was born on Sept. 20, 1935, in Piedmont, a town in northeast Alabama, and grew up in nearby Hokes Bluff. His father, Robert, was a steelworker, and his mother, Mary Asalee (Kilgo) Lankford, was a homemaker.
Mr. Lankford majored in journalism at the University of Alabama. Although he did not join a fraternity — usually a baseline requirement to gain social standing at the university — he rose high in its intense political scene, becoming the first student not in a fraternity to join the “Machine,” a secret society that controls a wide swath of campus life.
He was also on the make as a journalist. As a senior he edited The Crimson-White, the student newspaper, a role that brought him in contact with Mr. Townsend. After getting a master’s degree in journalism, also from the University of Alabama, and working for a newspaper in Columbus, Ga., he joined The News in 1959 as a police reporter.
Mr. Lankford later took pains to distance himself from Mr. Connor, insisting that currying favor with the police was just part of his job. “A young frightened country kid trying to be a police reporter knows he can’t snitch on a cop and get away with it,” he told Ms. McWhorter.
Yet his relationship with law enforcement often went beyond the bounds of getting a good story. One evening in the fall of 1963, he told Ms. McWhorter, he knelt with a shotgun in the back seat of a car driven by an F.B.I. agent as it sped past the national headquarters of the National States Rights Party, a neo-Nazi organization.
The bureau had tapped the party’s phones as part of an investigation into whether the party was behind the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four girls. As the car passed the building, Mr. Lankford shot off the roof of a car belonging to J.B. Stoner, one of the party’s leaders, in the hope that he would start making calls and, in the process, divulge information about the bombing.
After working as a reporter and photographer for a number of years, Mr. Lankford moved on to a series of editing jobs. He never expressed regrets for the compromises he made as a journalist.Credit…via Dawn Bowling
Not long after, Mr. Lankford was involved in an effort to trap Dr. King in a vice sting. Using a wiretap he had placed on the phone of A.D. King, Dr. King’s brother, the police learned that the two were planning a sexual liaison with a group of women. The police and Mr. Lankford, who was manning the tap, followed them in their car; at one point an officer told him to be ready to snap a photo of the compromised civil rights leader, and to yank down Dr. King’s pants if he still had them on. But the officers lost the trail in traffic, an event that Mr. Lankford later described as “lucky” — for Dr. King as well as for himself.
Mr. Lankford also knew about a plan by Mr. Connor to assassinate Fred Shuttlesworth, a leader of the Birmingham civil rights movement. Mr. Connor had one of his assistants hire a Black man to shoot Mr. Shuttlesworth and pretend it was a robbery; the scheme failed, but the assistant told Mr. Lankford about it afterward. He never wrote about it, nor did he tell anyone until years later, when Ms. McWhorter interviewed him.
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In the late 1960s Mr. Lankford moved into a series of editing jobs, eventually becoming the editor and general manager of The Huntsville News, an affiliate of The Birmingham News.
In 1971, while Mr. Lankford was still the editor of The Huntsville News, he and two other men received a contract for $91,570 to prepare a plan for how Alabama could spend a federal law-enforcement grant. According to one witness during a later congressional investigation, the men “misrepresented” their qualifications, performed less work than the contract called for, and proposed just one original idea, for a “black-clad, nighttime police force of shock troops similar to Nazi storm troopers” — an idea that even the archconservative, pro-segregation Gov. George C. Wallace rejected as “repugnant.” After the state sued them, Mr. Lankford and his associates returned $20,000.
Mr. Lankford left The Huntsville News, and journalism, in 1977. He worked in public relations, first in New Orleans and then, for nearly 20 years, in Saudi Arabia. He traveled widely, and during a 1986 vacation to Thailand he met his second wife, Chalermporn Changseang, known as Tan. They married the next year.
His first marriage, to Sherry Dean Murray, ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Dawn, he is survived by his wife; another daughter, Carrie White; a brother, Glenn Lankford; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Lankford returned to Alabama in 1999 with plans to work on his family’s farm. Instead he started yet another career, this time as a long-haul trucker, until he had a heart attack in 2008. He then worked as a greeter at a Walmart-owned Sam’s Club and consulted with Ms. Thorne on her book.
Even more than a half-century after the peak of the civil rights movement, Mr. Lankford never expressed regrets for the compromises he made as a reporter.
“I don’t know if he ever thought about it,” his daughter Dawn said. “He was young, nimble, and willing to do what was necessary to get the story.”