Mr. Lankford began working for the News, then an afternoon newspaper, in 1959, when the civil rights movement was gaining strength, along with White resistance to it. For several years, he seemed to be everywhere in the South, covering major civil rights flash points.
Working as both a reporter and a photographer, Mr. Lankford won numerous awards for his front-line coverage, which sometimes put him in danger. He covered the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who rode buses into the South to protest segregated transportation facilities, only to be attacked by White thugs and often jailed.
He covered marches and other demonstrations led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham and across the South. Pretending to be a student, he photographed James Meredith in class when Meredith became the University of Mississippi’s first African American student in 1962. He outran U.S. marshals to the local Associated Press office, which put his picture on the news wire.
Mr. Lankford reported on the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, which killed four Black girls. He took a memorable photograph of civil rights marchers, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965. The peaceful marchers were beaten by White police officers on a day so notorious that it became known as Bloody Sunday.
“That man was present for almost all the historical civil rights events,” former Birmingham police officer Teresa Thorne, who interviewed Mr. Lankford for an upcoming book about the civil rights era, told the News. “He had a lot of respect for Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth. He admired their courage. He was on a friendly basis with them.”
During those years, Mr. Lankford was not just a “multi-portfolioed Birmingham News reporter,” Diane McWhorter wrote in “Carry Me Home,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. He also had a secondary identity as a “surrogate cop, spy, and ‘have gun, will travel’ agent provocateur.”
At the behest of Vincent Townsend, assistant publisher of the News, Mr. Lankford had a lavish expense account to buy wiretap and photographic surveillance equipment. He had a truck with a phone company logo on the side and became adept at climbing telephone poles and putting wiretaps on the lines. He entered churches and union meeting halls to put surveillance devices in place.
He also worked closely with Birmingham’s police department, which was led until 1963 by the notoriously brutal segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor. One of Connor’s detectives introduced Mr. Lankford to members of the Ku Klux Klan, which saved his life at least once. After he photographed White gangs beating civil rights protesters, Mr. Lankford was roughed up in an alley by Klan members until one of them recognized him as “Bull’s boy.”
“He was embedded with the police department,” Thorne told the News in its obituary of Mr. Lankford. “By his own admission, he became too involved and too close for an objective journalist. He did not regret it one bit.”
Mr. Lankford said he was trying to balance the responsibilities of covering a White police force and Black civil rights leaders. At the same time, he was trying to please his boss, Townsend, a Birmingham power broker who wanted “to know every word they’re saying … 10 minutes after they’ve said it,” Mr. Lankford told McWhorter.
One scheme Mr. Lankford learned of was a plot by local officials to assassinate Shuttlesworth, one of Birmingham’s most important civil rights figures. The attempt failed, but no one — including Mr. Lankford — reported it to federal authorities at the time.
“A young frightened country kid trying to be a police reporter,” he said, “knows he can’t snitch on a cop and get away with it.”
Another time, Mr. Lankford was riding with police as they tried to follow King and his brother, the Rev. A.D. King, to what the police thought would be an rendezvous with women who were not their wives. Mr. Lankford said his task was to pull down King’s trousers as vice squad agents stormed the room. The police lost the King brothers’ car in traffic, which Mr. Lankford later said was the best outcome for all concerned.
In 1963, Mr. Lankford was riding with a police detective past the headquarters of the neo-Nazi States Rights Party, whose leader, J.B. Stoner was later imprisoned for bombing a Black church. When the detective shouted, “Now!,” Mr. Lankford rose up in the back seat and fired a shotgun blast at Stoner’s car, blowing off the roof.
He also wiretapped a meeting in which his onetime protector, Connor, promised to give firefighters a pay raise if he were reelected as public safety commissioner. When word got around, Birmingham voters changed the city’s form of government, forcing Connor out of his job.
“My father understood the vital role the free press plays in monitoring the actions of government at every level,” Mr. Lankford’s daughter Dawn Bowling said in a statement to The Washington Post. “His relationships uniquely enabled him to report on and photograph countless historical events that may have otherwise not been made public.”
Thomas Earl Lankford was born Sept. 20, 1935, in Piedmont, Ala., and grew up in Hokes Bluff, in northeastern Alabama. His father was a steelworker, his mother a homemaker.
At the University of Alabama, from which he graduated and received a master’s degree in journalism, Mr. Lankford was editor of the school newspaper.
After working in Birmingham, he was editor of the Huntsville Times from 1969 to 1977. He later worked in public relations in New Orleans, then spent 18 years in Saudi Arabia, doing public relations for construction projects and a Saudi royal commission.
When he returned to the United States in 1999, he worked as a commercial truck driver until he had a serious heart attack in 2008. He later became a greeter at a Walmart.
His first marriage, to Sherry Dean Murray, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 35 years, the former Chalermporn “Tan” Changseang of Gadsden; two daughters from his first marriage; a brother; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Lankford’s surveillance activities and arrangements with police may have violated modern journalism ethics, but he maintained that he was merely doing what was needed to document the turbulent times he witnessed.
“Everything we did,” he told McWhorter, “was certainly for the public good even if we did not go by the letter of the law.”