John Seigenthaler, who died last week at 86, is being rightly eulogized as a great journalist. As editor of The (Nashville) Tennessean, editorial page editor of USA Today and founder of the First Amendment Center in Washington and Nashville, Seigenthaler was a tireless advocate for the proposition that a strong, free press is an essential component of democracy.
As in most newsrooms, there are journalists here who have learned from and been inspired by him.
Seigenthaler’s dedication to the cause of civil rights and racial equality may have had an even greater influence.
Seigenthaler was a mesmerizing storyteller. When he talked about the civil rights movement, he drew on his own experience growing up a son of the racist South in Nashville in the ’30s and ’40s. He was raised to accept that racial segregation was right and proper.
Talking a few years ago to a group of Indiana college students, Seigenthaler’s voice broke as he recalled his own insensitivity as a teenager. Though his parents had taught him good manners, Seigenthaler said, separate but equal was the law and the custom when he was growing up, and so it never occurred to him to offer his seat to black women who were moving to the back of the bus.
I sat there and watched those women walking by me, he said. I’m sorry, God – I never saw them. They were invisible.
It never occurred to me to stand up for a woman of color, he continued. Where was my head? Where was my heart?
Seigenthaler told of how he slowly grew to understand how wrong it all was.
He told the rest of his story many times – how he became involved in covering the civil rights movement and how, just as the movement blossomed, he took a leave from journalism to work as an aide to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
One day in May 1961, Seigenthaler was in Montgomery, Alabama, to observe for the government when a group of desegregationists known as the Freedom Riders descended from a public bus and were savagely attacked by the Ku Klux Klan. Seigenthaler was trying to help two black women to the safety of his car when a Klansman knocked him unconscious.
Seigenthaler recalled that when he was recovering in a clinic a few days later, an Alabama doctor told him to go back to Washington and tell the Kennedys to stop sending troublemakers to Alabama.
He said he told the doctor that more and more people would be coming to fight for civil rights. And, he added, not even John and Robert Kennedy would be able to stop that.
As usual, John Seigenthaler, a journalist guided by a self-set moral compass and a deep sense of history, was exactly right.