John Seigenthaler, the legendary journalist who edited The Tennessean, was instrumental in shaping the editorial page of USA Today and worked as an assistant to Robert Kennedy, has died at 86.
A statement from his son, broadcast journalist John Seigenthaler Jr., said his father died “peacefully at home,” where he was recovering after a recent medical treatment.
NPR’s David Folkenflik says Seigenthaler was known as a crusader against corruption and for civil rights.
“As a reporter for The Tennessean, Seigenthaler once saved a suicidal man’s life on a bridge over the Cumberland River — a bridge eventually named after him. As the newspaper’s longtime editor, he led coverage of the civil rights movement when most Southern newspapers, including the rival Nashville Banner, ignored the growing resistance to racial segregation in the South.
“Seigenthaler also exposed corruption in the Teamsters union, grave deficiencies in the state’s mental health system and illicit activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee. And he inspired several generations of journalists to greatness.”
“His friendship with the Kennedys, established in the late ’50s, led to a job as a top aide to Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department for more than a year,” David says. “Seigenthaler was beaten in 1961 while trying to ensure protesters riding integrated buses made it safely through segregated states in the Deep South.”
“I never saw anything in my life. Never will ever again to compare with the violence on that parking lot at that Greyhound station,” Seigenthaler told the AP in an interview in January about the incident.
In 1962, he returned to The Tennessean as editor, but he took a leave of absence in 1968 to help Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. After Kennedy’s assassination, he returned to the newspaper again.
According to the AP:
“In the 1980s, he became the first editorial director as the Gannett Co. launched USA Today. He held the post for almost a decade. Gannett also owns The Tennessean.
“[After he] retired from The Tennessean in 1991, Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. The mission of the center — an independent affiliate of the Arlington, Va.-based Freedom Forum — is to create national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment issues.
“In July 2002, Vanderbilt named the First Amendment Center’s building The John Seigenthaler Center. And in August 2001, the university created a scholarship for minority students in Seigenthaler’s name after he gave Vanderbilt $2 million.”