John Seigenthaler, crusading newspaper editor and Kennedy insider, dies at 86

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the “Freedom Riders” documentary was part of the PBS series American Masters. It was part of the American Experience series.


John Seigenthaler, longtime editor and publisher of the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, was a Kennedy insider and crusader for civil rights. He died July 11 at 86. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
July 11

John Seigenthaler, a crusading newspaper editor from Tennessee who as a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1961 was beaten while trying to protect young civil rights demonstrators from a mob in Alabama, died July 11 at his home in Nashville. He was 86.

His son, broadcast journalist John M. Seigenthaler, announced the death in a statement. The cause was cancer.

Mr. Seigenthaler joined Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper in 1949 and was known for his fearless brand of journalism almost from the beginning. In 1954, he saved the life of a man about to jump off a bridge, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him to safety. He later went on to expose Teamsters corruption and Ku Klux Klan activities throughout his state.

After becoming editor of the Tennessean in 1962, at the age of 34, Mr. Seigenthaler made it one of the South’s most vigorous voices in support of civil rights. He led the paper as editor and publisher for almost 30 years, building a national reputation as an outspoken proponent of freedom of the press and journalistic integrity. He once fired an editor when he discovered she was working as an informant for the FBI.

Mr. Seigenthaler also was among the founding editors of USA Today and was its editorial page editor from 1982 to 1991 while simultaneously serving as editor and publisher of the Tennessean.

“I think he is one of the towering figures in modern American journalism,” Lee Stinnett, then the executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991. “There are three things that concern him — racial justice, freedom of speech and the political process.”

In 1957, through his reporting on the Teamsters, Mr. Seigenthaler became friends with Kennedy, who was leading federal investigations into organized crime. He edited Kennedy’s 1959 book about the Teamsters, “The Enemy Within.”

Inspired by the promise and excitement of John F. Kennedy’s election as president in 1960, Mr. Seigenthaler joined the administration as a top assistant to Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department. They were both Catholics from large families, and Mr. Seigenthaler was one of the few Southerners in the Kennedy inner circle.

In May 1961, he was sent to monitor busloads of idealistic young activists, known as the Freedom Riders, making some of the first civil rights forays into the South.

At a Greyhound station in Montgomery, Ala., Mr. Seigenthaler sought to protect two young women who were under attack by an armed white mob of about 1,000 people.

“The mob carried an astonishing array of makeshift weapons: baseball bats, tire irons, garden tools, Coca-Cola crates,” Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in “The Race Beat,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2007.

Mr. Seigenthaler, they wrote, “shouted that he was a federal agent. It didn’t work. A man smashed a pipe into Seigenthaler’s head. The mob kicked him as he lay unconscious. Nearby, a black youth was doused with an inflammable liquid and set afire.”

Mr. Seigenthaler lay in the street for about 25 minutes before he was taken to a hospital.

Another person attacked in the same melee was a young demonstrator named John Lewis, who was also beaten until he was unconscious. Lewis is now a long-serving Democratic congressman from Georgia.

In a 2011 American Experience documentary for PBS called “Freedom Riders,” Mr. Seigenthaler said he had grown up in Nashville with no real understanding of the injustices faced by African Americans.

“We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid of change,” he said.

He left the Justice Department in 1962 to return to Nashville and the Tennessean. He made the civil rights struggle a focal point of his paper’s coverage and hired the paper’s first full-time black reporters.

Mr. Seigenthaler took a leave of absence in 1968 to join Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and he served as a pallbearer at Kennedy’s funeral in June 1968.

In Nashville, Mr. Seigenthaler’s newspaper attracted top journalistic talent, including Bill Kovach, who later edited the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Jim Squires, who became editor of the Chicago Tribune.

One of the young reporters who worked for the Tennessean in the early 1970s was Al Gore. It was Mr. Seigenthaler who first suggested that Gore run for Congress.

“He was one of the most important teachers and mentors and role models in my life,” Gore told the Tennessean. “I loved it. In the process, I began to see politics and public service through a completely different lens.”

John Lawrence Seigenthaler Jr. was born July 27, 1927, in Nashville and was one of eight children. His father was a building contractor.

Mr. Seigenthaler attended George Peabody College for Teachers, now a branch of Vanderbilt University, and served in the Air Force before starting his newspaper career.

He first gained national recognition in 1953, when he went in search of the son of a prominent Nashville family. Thomas C. Buntin had disappeared in 1931, leaving his wife and three children behind. His secretary vanished six weeks later.

After a tip, Mr. Seigenthaler went to Texas and, by chance, saw a man resembling Buntin getting off a bus. Mr. Seigenthaler followed him home and discovered that he was living under the name of Thomas D. Palmer, with his former secretary. They had six children together.

In 1973, Mr. Seigenthaler became publisher of the Tennessean and held the joint positions of editor and publisher until retiring in 1991. He retired from USA Today the same year, then founded the First Amendment Center, an institute promoting freedom of the press that is now affiliated with the Washington-based Newseum.

Mr. Seigenthaler wrote four books, including a 2004 biography of President James K. Polk, and had a weekly public television show in Nashville, “A Word on Words,” on which he interviewed authors. He also chaired the selection committees of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s Profiles in Courage Award.

Survivors include his wife since 1955, Dolores Watson, a onetime singer, of Nashville; a son, John M. Seigenthaler of Weston, Conn.; three sisters; a brother; and a grandson.

In 2005, Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that a Wikipedia entry about him contained false and defamatory information. When he couldn’t find out who had posted the malicious material, he wrote an article for USA Today critical of the online encyclopedia’s editorial policies and of the viral lies that can be spread on the Internet.

“At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me,” he wrote. “I was wrong.”

Soon thereafter, Wikipedia began to require verifiable citations in their entries.

Mr. Seigenthaler continued to serve on journalism panels and give speeches on press freedom and other issues until shortly before his death.

“I think journalism was the most important thing I could have done with my life,” he told the Tennessean. “I just can’t think of anything I could have done with my life that would have been more meaningful.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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