Civil rights photographer Tom Lankford dies of COVID-19

A former Birmingham News photographer, recognized nationwide for documenting the civil rights movement, has died.

Tom Lankford died of COVID-19, pneumonia and heart failure on December 31, 2020, his daughter Dawn Bowling said. He was 85 years old.

When US Representative John Lewis died last year, Lankford’s photos of Lewis marching over Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 were among the most re-published photos of Lewis. Lankford photographed the beatings of Lewis and other demonstrators on March 7, 1965 in Selma.

In 2009, the Anti-Defamation League honored 12 former Birmingham News photographers, including Lankford, in Concert Against Hatred at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, with actor Liev Schreiber as master of ceremonies.

Among Lankford’s many historical black and white photos are some of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham on March 6, 1960 on Men’s Day. King had recently resigned as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where he was running the Montgomery Bus Boycott to devote more time to civil rights activism.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on Men’s Day on March 6, 1960 at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham. King recently resigned as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where he ran the Montgomery Bus Boycott to spend more time on civil rights activism. (Photo by Tom Lankford / The Birmingham News / File)Alabama Media Group

As a reporter and photographer for the Birmingham News, Lankford covered the 1961 attacks on the Freedom Riders, the marches led by King and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham in the spring of 1963, and the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 that marched in Selma in 1965 and other civil rights events in the 1960s. Lankford reported King’s final arrest in Birmingham on October 30, 1967 when Major David Orange and Lt. Dan Jordan of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office arrested him at Birmingham Airport on a pending warrant and took him to Bessemer Prison.

Lankford graduated from Hokes Bluff High School in 1953 and then earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in journalism from the University of Alabama, where he was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Crimson White in 1958. He started working for The Birmingham News in 1959.

After Lankford had reported on the civil rights movement from Birmingham in the 1960s, he was editor of the Huntsville News until 1977.

“This man has been present at almost every historic civil rights event,” said former Birmingham Police Officer Teresa Thorne, author of the upcoming civil rights story. “Behind the magic curtain: secrets, spies and unsung white allies of the Civil Rights Days in Birmingham.” , ”To be released April 20th.

Lankford shared his experiences with Thorne for her book, including his controversial role as a “spy” for the Birmingham Police Department, taping civil rights meetings, tapping King’s phone at the Gaston Motel, and exchanging information with the police.

“He was embedded in the police department,” Thorne said. “By his own account, he became too committed and too tight for an objective journalist. He hasn’t regretted it a bit. “

Although intermittently used by the public safety officer in Birmingham, Eugene “Bull” Connor, Lankford also made a secret shot of Connor in 1962 that helped defeat Connor and led to a new form of government for the mayor’s council in 1963, said Thorne.

“He got wind of a meeting in the firefighter’s union hall across from City Hall,” Thorne said. “That was the famous meeting where they promised the firefighters a raise. He recorded it. It was used by people who supported a move to a mayoral government. “

He previously took a photo of former District Attorney Tom King shaking hands with a black man used as campaign propaganda by segregationist Art Hanes to win the mayor’s race against King in 1961.

When events played out, Lankford always seemed to be there.

“For him, it wasn’t about playing politics, it was about getting the story,” Thorne said. “He did that by not being able to assert ourselves as objective journalistic methods.”

Lankford once pretended to be a student at the University of Mississippi to get the first photo of James Meredith, Ole Miss’ first black student to attend class in 1962, Thorne said.

Lankford was threatened with violence by the Ku Klux Klan after a mob beat up Freedom Riders at Birmingham’s Trailways bus station in 1961. They dragged him into an alley and demanded the film from his camera, which he gave up. But Lankford then went to Carraway Hospital and took famous pictures of Freedom Rider Jim Peck, one of those who was beaten up at the bus station, Thorne said.

“He had a great deal of respect for Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth,” said Thorne. “He admired her courage. He was kind to them. “

Few people had such access to civil rights leaders and the inner workings of the police force who enforced segregation.

“It wasn’t that he believed Connor’s racism,” Thorne said. “He did it to get a story and have access.”

Bowling, one of his two daughters, said her father had close friendships with police officers “so he always had the relationship he needed” to get a story or a picture.

“Daddy was very closely associated with the police, state troopers, the sheriff’s department, and the FBI,” Bowling said. “One of his best friends was Sheriff Mel Bailey,” who was Jefferson County Sheriff from 1963-1996.

In the end, Lankford got pictures that became an important part of the historical record.

“He was a complex man and it was a complex time,” said Thorne.

After his newspaper career, Lankford worked in public relations for the Parson / Gilbane Joint Venture and Dravo Utility Constructors, then Saudi Arabian Parsons Limited, liaising with the Saudi Royal Commission during the construction of the city of Yanbu. He worked for the Saudi Royal Commission from 1987 to 1999.

He lived in Saudi Arabia from 1981-1999 and sometimes gave presentations to Saudi princes in the desert under tents on Persian carpets in the sand, Bowling said.

He returned to Hokes Bluff and started gardening, but then decided he wanted to become a 4×4 driver, Bowling said. He and his 35-year-old wife Tan, whom he met in Thailand, were both certified as commercial truck drivers. After driving 18-wheelers from Alabama to California with his wife and their Golden Retriever for several years, he suffered a heart attack near the US-Mexico border in 2008.

He gave up trucking but had become a welcome to the Sam’s in Oxford in recent years. He always wore a tie and shoes, as he had done during his newspaper days, and had conversations with customers who came into the store.

He quit his Sam’s greeting job in March 2020 when the coronavirus lockdown began. “He was a neat dresser that always wore a tie,” said Bowling. She recalled that when her parents divorced in the early 1960s, Lankford picked her and her sister Carrie up for the weekend and took them along while they worked.

“He was very tall, had these long legs, walked very quickly and always had a camera on his shoulder,” she said.

She remembered that once at a meeting he took pictures of the Ku Klux Klan and asked her to remove her hoods. “He was standing in the back of a pickup truck and they posed for him with their masks off,” she said. “Then they changed their minds. They came to the house and asked for dad’s camera. They searched the house and found it in the toddler room. They tore up his camera and recorded his film. “

See the obituary here.

Hosea Williams and John Lewis, front right, lead protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday.

Albert Turner and Bob Mants walk right behind Williams and Lewis. (Photo by Tom Lankford / The Birmingham News / File)Alabama Media Group

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