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Wed, 07.27.1927

John Seigenthaler, Journalist, and Author born

John Seigenthaler

*John Seigenthaler was born on this date in 1927. He was a white-American journalist and civil rights activist.

A native of Nashville, TN, Seigenthaler was the oldest of eight siblings. He attended Father Ryan High School and served in the U.S. Air Force from 1946 to 1949. After leaving the service, Seigenthaler was hired as a newspaper reporter at The Nashville Tennessean. During this period, he took courses in sociology and literature at Peabody College and Vanderbilt. He also attended the American Press Institute at Columbia University. He was a talented journalist and won the National Headliner Award for his story about Thomas C. Buntin, a wealthy Nashville business owner who had disappeared in September 1931 but was discovered by Seigenthaler living in Orange, Texas.

In January 1961, he became a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Seigenthaler described his privileged upbringing and how it left him blind to the problems of Jim Crow Laws. 

"I grew up in the South, the child of good and decent parents..." he recalls in Freedom Riders. "I don't know where my head or heart was, or my parents' heads and hearts, or my teachers'. I never heard it once from the pulpit. We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid of change." 

As special assistant to the Attorney General, Seigenthaler initially served as the intermediary between the federal government, the Freedom Riders, and white segregationist state officials. His task was to convince the Freedom Riders to cease their direct action and accept a "cooling off" period while ensuring their physical safety from mob violence.

The administration believed that as a white Southerner from Tennessee, Seigenthaler would share a common bond with Governor Patterson of Alabama and other members of the Deep South establishment. 

"I'd go in, my Southern accent dripping sorghum and molasses, and warm them up," he explained. 

Seigenthaler successfully arranged for the original CORE Freedom Riders to depart from Birmingham on May 15 by plane after a lack of willing bus drivers had blocked their progress. However, he soon learned that the federal government held little sway on the issue of race relations in Alabama. He was knocked unconscious while attempting to aid two Freedom Riders during the May 20 riot at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station after telling assailants to stop and respect his authority as a federal official. 

Seigenthaler went on to work on Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign before returning to journalism. He later became editor, publisher, and CEO of Nashville's The Tennessean and founding editorial director of USA Today.

He founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in 1961 to create a national discussion about First Amendment rights and values.  In 1986, Middle Tennessee State University established the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, honoring Seigenthaler's "lifelong commitment to free expression values." Seigenthaler hosted a book review program on Nashville public television station WNPT called A Word on Words and chaired the selection committees for the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation's Profiles in Courage Award and the RFK Memorial's Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

John Siegenthaler died on July 11, 2014, at 86, surrounded by his family in his home.

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