The late John Seigenthaler, right, journalist and civil rights activist, is pictured with Msgr. Owen Campion, center, who is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, and Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville, Tenn., during the 2010 Centennial Leadership Summit at Belmont University in Nashville. Seigenthaler, 86, died July 11. Tennessee Register file photo by Rick Musacchio
John Seigenthaler, a legendary journalist, close friend and aide to Robert Kennedy, a fierce fighter for civil rights, and one of Nashville’s most prominent and well-known Catholics, was recalled during his funeral Mass as a man who when confronted with injustice was compelled to respond.
In his eulogy, Charles Strobel, the founding director of the Room In The Inn homeless shelter in Nashville and a longtime friend of Mr. Seigenthaler, said, “Today, he encourages us still – not really to honor him, but to continue the defense of human rights and to carry out the dream of our Founding Fathers – that all men and that all women are created equal.”
Mr. Seigenthaler was “a deeply spiritual man,” Strobel said. “As long as we’re concerned about the injustices of the world, we’re concerned about God. … We know that John certainly was concerned about injustice. Thus, was John a disciple.”
Mr. Seigenthaler died of cancer Friday, July 11, at his home in Nashville, surrounded by family. He was 86 years old.
The funeral Mass on Monday, July 14, drew a standing room only crowd of more than 1,000 people to the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, where Mr. Seigenthaler had been baptized, grew up, attended school and was married.
Among those at the funeral were political figures, including U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, former Vice President Al Gore, civil rights activists, journalists, family and friends, including Ethel Kennedy, her son and grandson.
Father Joseph Patrick Breen, a longtime friend of the Seigenthaler family and pastor of St. Edward Church in Nashville, was the main celebrant and homilist for the funeral Mass, with Nashville Bishop David Choby presiding.
“John was baptized in water,” Father Breen said at the start of the Mass. “We bless him now because he is fully one with the Lord.”
The Mass featured music of the civil rights struggle that defined much of Mr. Seigenthaler’s career and life. Recording artist Jonell Mosser sang “Turn, Turn, Turn,” inviting the congregation to join her in singing the refrain, and later country music star Emmylou Harris sang “We Shall Overcome,” with the congregation spontaneously joining her halfway through the song. The choir led the singing of “This Little Light of Mine” and, as the casket was wheeled out of the Cathedral, “I’ll Fly Away.”
‘A sense of what’s just’
Mr. Seigenthaler was born on July 27, 1927, the eldest of the eight children of John Lawrence and Mary Brew Seigenthaler. His family were parishioners at the Cathedral, where he attended elementary school.
Mr. Seigenthaler graduated in 1945 from Father Ryan High School, then the only Catholic high school in the city for boys. He and Nashville attorney George Barrett met as freshmen at Father Ryan in 1941 and became lifelong friends.
Ethel Kennedy, widow of Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was a close friend of John Seigenthaler, enters the Cathedral of the Incarnation for the funeral Mass of Mr. Seigenthaler on Monday, July 14. Photos by Rick Musacchio
As a young high school student, Mr. Seigenthaler “was much like he was the rest of his life,” recalled Barrett. “He was very competitive. … He was smart, very smart.”
Later in life, Mr. Seigenthaler and Barrett worked together for civil rights. It was during their formative years at Father Ryan “where we got our sense of social justice,” Barrett said. Mr. Seigenthaler had “a sense of what’s just,” Barrett said. “What can be more important than justice?”
After graduating from Father Ryan, Mr. Seigenthaler spent three years in the Air Force. After returning home, he attended Peabody College in Nashville with the intention of becoming a teacher. But when his father died in 1949, he got a job as a reporter at his hometown newspaper, The Tennessean, to help support his mother and seven brothers and sisters.
He quickly made a name for himself as a reporter. In 1953, he won a National Headliner Award for stories about a wealthy Nashville man who had vanished 23 years earlier. Mr. Seigenthaler and a Tennessean photographer had tracked down the man who was living incognito in Texas.
In 1955, he pulled a suicidal man off a bridge over the Cumberland River. Earlier this year, that bridge was renamed in Mr. Seigenthaler’s honor.
In 1957, he met Robert Kennedy after writing a series of stories about corruption in labor unions, in particular the Teamsters union headed by Jimmy Hoffa. Impressed by his reporting, Kennedy asked Mr. Seigenthaler to edit his own book about the Teamsters, “The Enemy Within.”
Bishop David Choby greets Delores Seigenthaler, widow of John Seigenthaler, after presiding at the Mass.
That began a close professional and personal relationship between the two men, which extended to their families and continues today. Among those attending the funeral were Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, his eldest son Joseph Kennedy II, and his grandson U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, as well as other members of the Kennedy family.
In 1960, Mr. Seigenthaler took a leave from The Tennessean to work on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He was present for one of the pivotal moments of the campaign, Kennedy’s speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
“It was a high moment” and key to Kennedy’s eventual narrow victory over Richard Nixon, Mr. Seigenthaler told the Tennessee Register in a 2011 interview. “It was one hell of an evening, I’ll tell you.”
Kennedy’s candidacy had prompted a steady stream of anti-Catholic attacks asserting Kennedy, if elected, would take directions on how to run the country from the pope, Mr. Seigenthaler explained. The goal of the speech before the Protestant ministers was to establish Kennedy’s independence, Mr. Seigenthaler said.
Early in the speech, Kennedy set the theme. “So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again – not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me – but what kind of America I believe in.”
Jack Seigenthaler, grandson of Mr. John Seigenthaler, leans into to hug his father, John M. Seigenthaler, after addressing the congregation at the end of Mass. To his left is his mother, Kerry Brock.
“That theme sort of trumped the hostility that existed in the room,” Mr. Seigenthaler remembered.
The speech had a lasting effect, laying to rest any questions of the loyalty of not only Kennedy but of Catholic candidates who have run for and won national office in the years since, Mr. Seigenthaler said. But the issue has continued to resurface for candidates of other faiths Americans are not familiar with, such as Mormons and Muslims, Mr. Seigenthaler noted. “If you get it out in the course of the campaign, there’s a better chance to come to grips with it and reach that reality that we’re all one nation under God,” Mr. Seigenthaler said in 2011.
After Kennedy’s election as president, Mr. Seigenthaler became Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s administrative aide and was in the thick of several fights concerning civil rights and racial justice. Kennedy dispatched Mr. Seigenthaler to accompany a group of Freedom Riders to Alabama. The Freedom Riders were attacked and when Mr. Seigenthaler rushed to assist a young woman whom had been punched, he himself was beaten and knocked unconscious.
In his eulogy, Strobel recalled that during a talk at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, which Mr. Seigenthaler helped found, he was asked why he did such things as help the suicidal man on the bridge and the Freedom Rider being attacked. His response, Strobel said, was “When you see it, how can you not respond?”
Mr. Seigenthaler spent a lifetime coming to the defense of others, “especially the poor and dispossessed, the marginalized, those segregated and left out,” Strobel said.
“Where does an instinct of this caliber – this internal, moral compass – come from? For John, it was nurtured in the fertile soil of a family of Christian believers, named Seigenthaler and Brew, who were part of another larger community that gathered here at the Cathedral and its school next door,” Strobel added.
In 1962, Seigenthaler returned to The Tennessean to become its editor at age 34. As a reporter and editor, he continued the newspaper’s advocacy for civil rights and an end to segregation. Under his leadership, the paper also sent reporters under cover to report on the conditions in the state’s mental health hospitals and the Ku Klux Klan. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the coal industry and the United Mine Workers. Reporting by The Tennessean led to the exoneration of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who had been wrongly convicted of murder and executed in Georgia in 1913.
Father Joe Pat Breen, pastor of St. Edward Church in Nashville and a long time friend of the Seigenthaler family, delivers the homily during Mr. John Seigenthaler’s funeral Mass at Cathedral of the Incarnation on Monday, July 14.
His tenure as editor of The Tennessean was interrupted in 1968 when he took a leave to serve in the presidential campaign of his good friend Robert Kennedy. He was serving as the campaign director for Northern California when Kennedy was assassinated on the night of the California primary.
Mr. Seigenthaler had ties to other national politicians during his years as The Tennessean’s editor. He hired Al Gore as a reporter at The Tennessean and later encouraged him to launch his political career, which took Gore to the House, the Senate, the vice presidency and an unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2000.
Although Mr. Seigenthaler was never interested in holding office himself, he was a towering figure in his hometown of Nashville, said Mr. Barrett. “I don’t know a senator, governor, congressman or mayor who’s meant more to Nashville than John Seigenthaler,” Barrett said. “He was a mover and a shaker.”
In his later years as editor of The Tennessean, Mr. Seigenthaler also served as the founding Editorial Director of USA Today, overseeing the paper’s editorial and opinion pages. He split his time between Nashville and USA Today’s offices in Washington to do both jobs until his retirement in 1991.
Throughout his life and career, Mr. Seigenthaler was a staunch advocate for First Amendment rights. At his funeral, his casket was covered with a banner emblazoned with the words of the First Amendment.
Faith and civil rights
Mr. Seigenthaler’s faith and interest in civil rights intersected in the 1960s and 1970s when he was part of an informal “kitchen cabinet” of lay Catholics who advised Nashville Bishop Joseph Durick, himself very active in the civil rights movement.
“Bishop Durick was very fond of John Seigenthaler and considered him not only a loyal friend but a good advisor,” said Joe Sweat, the former editor of the Tennessee Register, frequently a part of the informal gatherings, and a longtime friend of Mr. Seigenthaler.
“Bishop Durick had a sense in his own mind … that even in an area such as Tennessee where Catholics were few in number there could be an infusion of Catholic values,” said Msgr. Owen Campion, also a former editor of the Tennessee Register and a close friend of Bishop Durick.
One of the big issues the bishop and group would discuss was race and the struggle for civil rights, said Msgr. Campion.
Bishop Durick’s public stance in support of the civil rights movement caused much tension among the people of the Diocese of Nashville. “John Seigenthaler was really a cheerleader for him in that regard,” said Sweat, encouraging Bishop Durick to continue to push for racial justice.
Mr. Seigenthaler also lent his expertise as a journalist to the Church, serving two terms as a consultant for the Communications Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“He was terrific,” recalled Tony Spence, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service and a former editor of the Tennessee Register who also served as a consultant to the committee. “He had an unmatchable depth of knowledge of how media operates across the country and the world. He contributed greatly to that committee.”
Mr. Seigenthaler was helpful to the Catholic Press Association, as well, Msgr. Campion noted. “He was always available when we called on him for advice or assistance.” Msgr. Campion got the same kind of help personally when he asked Mr. Seigenthaler for help or advice while serving as the Tennessee Register editor, he said.
“John was tremendously loyal to his friends,” Msgr. Campion said. “He had a sensitivity for individual persons but also for elements in the society that were overlooked or mistreated.”
Mr. Seigenthaler “was one of the most prominent Nashville Catholics ever … ever,” said Spence. “Social justice was a particular passion of his both in his work at The Tennessean and all the things he did. ... He lived it. He really lived it.”
Mr. Seigenthaler reflected in his life “a profound appreciation of the dignity of the individual,” Bishop Choby said.
Devoted to family
Mr. Seigenthaler was a devoted to his family, including his wife Dolores, his son and daughter-in-law John Michael Seigenthaler and Kerry Brock, and his grandson Jack Seigenthaler.
In his remarks at the end of the funeral, Mr. Seigenthaler’s son said he died an elderly man, “but he never had an elderly mind.”
“He was often lost in his books,” and he liked to write in the margins as he read, John Michael Seigenthaler said. You could always tell where his father had been because he left behind ink stains, he said to laughter from the packed Cathedral. “Once we even found an ink stain on my dog.”
Mr. Seigenthaler was particularly close to his grandson, Jack Seigenthaler. “He never really treated me like a kid,” Jack Seigenthaler said of his grandfather in remarks at the end of the Mass. “He never felt old to me.”
He called his grandfather “a master storyteller” who “had a talent of bringing you where he’d been.”
Mr. Seigenthaler was preceded in death by his parents, John Lawrence and Mary Brew Seigenthaler, his sister Ann Seigenthaler Murphy and brothers Cornelius Brew Seigenthaler and Thomas Patrick Seigenthaler.
Survivors include his wife, Dolores Watson Seigenthaler; his son and daughter-in-law John M. Seigenthaler and Kerry Brock; grandson Jack Seigenthaler; sisters Evalyne Seigenthaler Pace, Alice Seigenthaler Valiquette and Joan Seigenthaler Miller; brother William Robert Seigenthaler; and numerous nieces and nephews.
Marshall Donnelly Combs Funeral Home was in charge of funeral arrangements.
The casket of John Seigenthaler, draped with a banner inscribed with the words of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, arrives at the Cathedral of the Incarnation for his funeral Mass on Monday, July 14. Mr. Seigenthaler, the long time editor of The Tennessean, was remembered for his efforts during the struggle for civil rights, his support for the weak and vulnerable, and his commitment to the First Amendment’s call for freedom of the press and of religion.