One spring day in 2008, while I was in Nashville, Tenn., to teach a class of aspiring editorial writers at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, John Seigenthaler drove up with a passenger. That passenger was Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s widow.
The writers and we, their instructors, had gathered outside to take a photo. With Ethel Kennedy in tow, Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, joined in – leaving all of us with an unexpected and powerful memento of our time together.
As I looked with awe at Kennedy and Seigenthaler, and explained the significance of the pair to some of the students who seemed unaware, I thought about something Seigenthaler had said the year before.
That year, 2007, he had joined a group taking a bus to retrace a Freedom Ride from Montgomery to Birmingham, Ala. Seigenthaler had been in Montgomery in 1961 during those days of mob violence and race hatred in America. Of those times, he called himself “a footnote to history.”
The life of John Seigenthaler, who died last week at 86, belies that characterization. He was so much more than just a footnote. His impact on race relations, civil rights, open government, journalism and the free expression of ideas and commentary have been long lasting.
Still, what happened during the civil rights battles of the 1960s left its mark on Seigenthaler. “I never saw anything in my life, never will ever again to compare with the violence on that parking lot at that Greyhound station,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in January. “You don’t see human beings acting like that.”
Seigenthaler was in that Greyhound station in Montgomery as the Justice Department aide sent to help protect the Freedom Riders and serve as chief negotiator with them and the governor of Alabama, John Patterson, as the activists attempted to desegregate interstate buses. Seigenthaler learned neither his Southern charm nor his status as Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s emissary could protect him in Alabama. He was brutally attacked with a pipe and knocked unconscious by Ku Klux Klansmen as he rushed to aid the protesters. The Klansmen reportedly left him in the street to die.
Seigenthaler, in his legendary self-deprecating humor, would later laughingly talk of how Robert Kennedy, his boss and friend, thanked him for “using his head” while in Alabama.
I’ve met Seigenthaler several times, and heard him tell that story more than once.
Seigenthaler said in a PBS documentary, “The Freedom Riders,” that his experience in Montgomery opened his eyes. “I grew up in the South, the child of good and decent parents... I don’t know where my head or heart was, or my parents’ heads and hearts, or my teachers’... We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid of change.”
And because his eyes were opened, he devoted a good deal of his life to opening the eyes of others. He returned in 1962 to his work in journalism and built a career of exposing injustice, fighting for equality and standing up for the First Amendment. Except for a leave of absence to help run Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968, he stayed in journalism as editor, publisher, and CEO of Nashville’s The Tennessean and founding editorial director of USA Today.
When he retired in 1991, he established The First Amendment Center with the aim of creating national discussion about First Amendment rights and values. He was a member of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform organized in 2001, and a member of the Constitution Project Initiative on Liberty and Security, created after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In July 2002, Vanderbilt University named the First Amendment Center’s building The John Seigenthaler Center. And in August 2001, the university created a scholarship for minority students in Seigenthaler's name after he gave the school $2 million.
His passionate defense of truth, accuracy and the First Amendment, particularly freedom of the press, has been an inspiration to legions of journalists, including me. When he took on Wikipedia in 2005 after he was defamed by a hoax biography posted on the site, I cheered. The controversy led Wikipedia to change its procedures for posting content.
Given the passion he displayed for justice and equality throughout his life, it is hardly surprising that at his death from cancer he was hard at work on a book about Alice Paul, the suffragette who fought and was jailed for her demonstrations for women’s voting rights, and who helped bring about the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Seigenthaler was, as Attorney General Eric Holder noted last week, “a remarkable man and a singular voice for the cause of justice.”
A footnote in history? Hardly.