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

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 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.

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