John Seigenthaler has worn a great many hats in his eighty-five years. But perhaps none is as important as that of the freedom fighter.
At the Tennessean (Nashville) for forty-three years, Seigenthaler rose from reporter to editor to publisher and CEO. He worked alongside US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and assisted Kennedy in his presidential campaign. He helped launch USA Today and founded the First Amendment Center.
“Those forty-five words (of the First Amendment) involve a great deal more than the free press clause,” says Seigenthaler, who in May was awarded an honorary degree from UT’s College of Law. “Religious liberty, the rights of speech, peaceful protest, and to petition and raise hell with your government.… It belongs to all of us, that amendment does. Most of us, without realizing it, rely on it every day.”
“John Seigenthaler’s passion for human equality, for the pursuit of truth, and for protection of free speech and a free press have improved the lives of all Americans,” wrote College of Law Dean Doug Blaze, when nominating Seigenthaler for the honorary degree he received in May.
Now “retired,” Seigenthaler continues to host a weekly TV book review program, A Word on Words. He assists with the Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards and the John F. Kennedy Library’s Profiles in Courage Awards. He sits on the boards of UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and the Country Music Hall of Fame. He’s active in programs associated with the Seigenthaler Chair at Middle Tennessee State University. And he keeps an office at the John Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt University to welcome visitors and occasionally give lectures and moderate discussions.
As Seigenthaler reflects upon the various chapters in his life, he draws lessons from each—starting in 1949, when he was hired as a cub reporter to write obituaries at the Tennessean.
“To get a job as a starting journalist, it helped to have talent and, modestly, I think I must have had some,” he says. “A surer way to land the job is to have an uncle who is an executive at the newspaper where you apply. That’s what I did.”
The job might have been handed to him, but Seigenthaler worked with zeal. He took what he learned writing obits and applied it to covering cops and courts. He won a National Headliner Award for tracking down the son of a wealthy Nashville businessman who had disappeared. He helped uncover corruption within the local branch of the Teamsters, including the criminal activities of Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa.
Despite his love for journalism, Seigenthaler was unhappy with the paper’s stance on covering the burgeoning civil rights movement, so in the early 1960s he left for two years to work as administrative assistant to then-US Attorney General Kennedy. In that capacity, he was sent to Alabama to negotiate with the governor. While there, trying to help Freedom Riders, he was attacked by Ku Klux Klansmen and hospitalized.
Seigenthaler returned to the Tennessean as editor in 1962, but then stepped away again in 1968 to work on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. In June of that year, just moments after winning the California primary, Kennedy was assassinated. Seigenthaler was a pallbearer at his funeral.
Taking temporary leave of his journalism career to work in politics might not have been “a smart career decision,” Seigenthaler says. “But Bob Kennedy and I had become close friends—and he said he needed my help. Sometimes you go with your heart.”
In the News
By the early 1980s, Seigenthaler was publisher of the Tennessean. He was approached about being part of a new national newspaper, USA Today.
On one hand, it seemed crazy.
“The conventional wisdom was that USA Today would not survive a year,” he says. “I remember looking at the mockups for USA Today and telling colleagues, ‘I find nothing in these prototypes that I can’t find in the Tennessean.’”
On the other hand, it was crazy exciting.
“I knew it was going to be the first national newspaper of general circulation, and I wanted to be part of it,” he says. “I accepted on the spot when Al Neuharth, the paper’s founder, invited me to become editorial director.”
Seigenthaler retired from both papers in 1991. That year, he founded the First Amendment Center, which serves as a forum for the study of free-expression issues. Its programs seek to provide education and information for the public, scholars and experts, educators, government policy makers, legal experts, and students.
“John Seigenthaler embodies what it means to be an American,” Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek says. “His incredible and storied life serves to remind us all about the precious freedoms we all enjoy as US citizens.”