John Seigenthaler, a champion of a free speech, human rights and a courageous journalist, died July 11 at the age of 86. Seigenthaler, The New York Times in noting his death said he pursued a “muscular approach to journalism as a crusading newspaper editor and publisher and as the founding editorial director of USA Today.”
Seigenthaler was also a close friend to Robert F. Kennedy. According to The Tennessean, the newspaper Seigenthaler reported for and eventually became editor, RFK met Seigenthaler “because the young reporter had written a number of news stories about growing corruption in the organized labor movements, particularly involving Jimmy Hoffa and his Teamsters union.” The Times also noted that as reporter for The Tennessean Seigenthaler was dogged in exposing the corruption of Hoffa’s Teamsters and “hounded the union boss.” It was some of Seigenthaler’s reporting that would help revive a federal grand jury that indicted Hoffa for jury tampering.
When RFK became attorney general during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Seigenthaler (pictured) was tapped to help the Kennedys work with a growing civil rights movement. In spring 1961, Seigenthaler was dispatched by RFK to help some of the first Freedom Riders; waves of youngsters in buses headed to the Deep South in what would be become a deadly and high-profile attempt to draw attention to ongoing segregation in public places. Seigenthaler was injured trying to help some of the Freedom Riders who were being beaten by a mob of rabid racists in Montgomery, Ala.
After RFK’s assassination in 1968 during a run for the presidency, it would not be long before Seigenthaler returned to journalism, eventually leading the editorial pages of the USA Today and much later founding the First Amendment Center, part of the Freedom Forum.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the young student Freedom Riders who was beaten and jailed, told The Tennessean Seigenthaler “was a newspaper man at heart who represented the highest tradition of journalist integrity and reporting. He used the power of the pen to help make this country a better place. He was a skillful negotiator, the consummate professional, yet he was a humble, down-to-earth gentleman who was dedicated and committed to his family and friends.”
[image via Curtis Palmer]