The Simple Truth About Editor John Seigenthaler

( Video credit: The Freedom Forum and Newseum)

By Lillian Williams

You will find dozens of posts and videos about the life and legacy of John L. Seigenthaler, the long-time newspaper editor and fierce champion of the First Amendment.  Advanced digital technologies allow us to easily obtain such information.

But if there’s one piece that you should absorb—above all others—it’s this one: John Seigenthaler made justice his life’s work.

Written by fellow Tennessean Beverly Keel, the article eloquently reminds us of this simple truth—standing for justice ofttimes can be lonely but it’s well worth the effort.

Seigenthaler died on July 11 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, with his family by his side. He was 86.

Most observers know him as the famed editor of The Tennessean newspaper; founding editorial director of USA Today; founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, and an assistant to the late Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy assigned to investigate racial conflict among other duties.

What struck me about Seigenthaler was how he refused to run with the pack. He didn’t sit in the “amen” corner.  As widely reported, he took risks during the 20th century Civil Rights Movement, including aiding Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1961 and exposing activities of the Klu Klux Klan.  Like so many other civil rights advocates of that era, he helped to change the climate—and the laws—of the nation.

John Seigenthaler made our country better, as described at links below:

Seigenthaler hailed from a large working class family in Nashville. The oldest of eight children, he attended college though he did not graduate. He was veteran of the U.S. Air Force.

As a college professor, I heard him speak earlier this year at an excellent opinion writing workshop in Nashville sponsored by the Association of Opinion Writers Foundation and the Newseum Institute.  It was held at the John Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt University. He was as feisty as ever.

As noted in the New York Times,  Seigenthaler frequently upset the social order of things.

“He was not always the most popular guy in town,” said his son, journalist John M. Seigenthaler, as quoted in the New York Times.

That article recounted how the younger Seigenthaler answered the telephone one day to hear racial obscenities of a woman protesting an editorial written by his father.  Sometimes the local police would protect the family’s home because of death threats, the son recalled. “There was always some potential that some nut would do something,” the younger Seigenthaler said in the article, adding, “But he didn’t change his life. He kept saying what he thought.”

Keel’s article, mentioned above, targets the real issue here: How many of us would have summoned the courage that Seigenthaler displayed?

“We would like to think that we, too, would have done the right thing if we had been standing by his side when he was helping the Freedom Riders or making important editorial decisions,” Keel wrote.  “But the truth is we will never know for sure. These were his achievements alone, and his life was well lived.”

Indeed, a life well lived.

It’s your turn.  What is your mission in life?  How are you making a difference? Leave your comments below.

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2 Responses to The Simple Truth About Editor John Seigenthaler

  1. Wonderful post, Lillian!! Thank you so much for putting this together. I’m so glad we got to learn from him before his passing. Hope you are doing well:-)

  2. Thanks, Lillian! You put your finger on it: John Seigenthaler’s courage was much more than hypothetical.

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