John Seigenthaler and Why We Need More Like Him


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’. I never heard it [racial equality] once from the pulpit. We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid of change. — John Seigenthaler

American liberalism is a unique phenomenon, rife with its share of sinners and saints, chumps and champions. Some have been national embarrassments; some have left the nation and world a proud and enduring legacy; and a goodly number have lived and led somewhere in-between.

There are the names of the rightfully lionized – seasoned change agents possessed of ambitious visions and the moxie to stick by them: Sojourner Truth; W.E.B Du Bois; Mother Jones; Eugene Debs; FDR; MLK; the Kennedys; Gloria Steinem; Jimmy Carter.

But the subtext of the liberal narrative is replete with equally committed if somewhat less laurelled women and men – likewise forward-thinking disturbers of the status quo without whom the progressive narrative would be much the poorer: Dorthea Dix; Samuel Gompers; Lester Rodney; Florence Reece; Larry Doby; Stephanie Tubbs-Jones; Ben Bradlee.

Indeed the case could be made that leftist historian and activist Howard Zinn had it right when he posited that the republic is only as strong as its liberal zeal; and liberalism is only as strong as those who labor to make tangible its marquee figures’ lofty ideals.

Add to the roll call of the progressive underappreciated a practical patrician from Tennessee named John Seigenthaler Sr. – the best newspaper man most Americans have never heard of.

Seigenthaler, a Catholic child of the Depression-era South, died in July at 86. He was eulogized for his public service, having worked in good friend Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department and on his 1968 presidential bid; as well as his civil rights activism, including suffering a lead pipe to the head in Montgomery while trying to free a black woman from a rogue cop.

But important though these contributions were to mid- and late-’60s liberalism, Seigenthaler is best remembered for an exacting but measured style of journalism rarely glimpsed in this age of sensationalized, breaking-stories-every-five-minutes news cycles.

Seigenthaler’s journalism career began in 1949 as a rookie reporter for the Nashville-based Tennessean where he would rise through the paper’s ranks, eventually becoming publisher and CEO.

Seigenthaler was fearless in using his influence on behalf of progressive values. He made his Tennessean bones by uncovering an insurance racket that preyed upon the poor, and as editor/publisher coordinated a personally risky expose of KKK operatives.

But championing liberal causes proved costly to Seigenthaler and his family. In an interview given to New York Times national correspondent John Schwartz shortly after Seigenthaler’s death, son John Jr. recalls the ever-present sense of danger that filled the home:

“He was not always the most popular guy in town,” said his son, who recalled picking up the phone on a weekend morning in his teenage years to hear a torrent of racist obscenity from a woman who had been outraged by a civil rights editorial his father had written. Occasionally, he said, the police would provide protection at the house in response to death threats. “There was always some potential that some nut would do something,” Mr. Seigenthaler recalled. “But he didn’t change his life. He kept saying what he thought.”

Seigenthaler retired from the Tennessean after a 43-year career with the paper but remained active in progressive causes, founding in 1991 the First Amendment Center – a forum for progressive ideas and programs having to do with free speech and press.

Seigenthaler’s personal and professional bravery in facing down a myriad of social/political oppressions stands to remind us of the need for sound, unfettered investigative reporting as a bulwark against constitutional abuse and oligarchical privilege.

And how much we need more like him.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister living in Jackson, Ohio. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2014

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