LifeNotes: Longtime Activist and Editor John Seigenthaler Dies

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler

Nashville native John Seigenthaler died at his home in Nashville on Friday, July 11. He served as an editor, publisher, founder, author, TV host, lecturer, educator and more during his decades of work.

Seigenthaler worked as a newspaper reporter at Nashville’s Tennessean before teaming with Robert Kennedy as part of a committee to investigate organized crime. In 1961, he began working as General Robert F. Kennedy’s special assistant. He served as an intermediary between the federal government, the Freedom Riders, and white segregationist state leaders. For decades he led the selection committees for the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s Profile in Courage Award and the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights’ Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

Seigenthaler became an editorial director of USA Today, and founded the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.

He lobbied for the college diplomas of former students who had been denied graduation because of their civil rights work. He also lobbied for the parole and freedom, rather than the death penalty, for a woman he said was unjustly sentenced. During his time at The Tennessean, he attempted to integrate Nashville churches by assigning a black reporter for the first time to do weekly reports on Sunday sermons for The Tennessean. As an editor, he delved into claims of corruption in local and state government.

He also served as the host of “A Word on Words,” one of public broadcasting’s longest-runnest shows. As the program’s host, he interviewed hundreds of authors, and was known for actually having read the books he discussed with them.

Nashville named a downtown walking bridge that crosses the Cumberland River after Seigenthaler, partly to recognize his work for equality, but also to honor an incident that happened 50 years ago. As a young reporter, Seigenthaler halted a man’s attempt to jump from the bridge railing; he held onto the man’s clothing until police arrived to assist.

“Today we lost an iconic figure in Nashville’s history — a man who stood for inclusiveness long before it was synonymous with our city’s culture,” said Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. “As a journalist, John did much more than bear witness to political and community affairs; he helped shape Nashville’s story, laying much of the groundwork for us to become the great city we are today. Personally, he has been an advisor and a friend. Our city will feel his absence. Anne and I extend our deepest condolences to Dolores, John Michael, Kerry and Jack, the apple of John’s eye.”

Funeral arrangements for Seigenthaler include a visitation from 3-6 p.m. on Sunday, July 13 at the First Amendment Center on the Vanderbilt University campus, 1207 18th Ave. S. It is open to the public. The funeral service, set for 10 a.m. Monday, July 14 at Cathedral of the Incarnation, is also open to the public.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to First Amendment Center or to Room in the Inn.


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Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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