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Home : News : Nation and World
7/16/2014 10:20:00 AM
Legendary journalist recalled for lifetime commitment to social justice
Catholic News Service photo
John Seigenthaler Sr., a journalist, writer and political figure,addresses the national assembly of the Ladies of Charity in Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 18 on his reflections of crossing the social justice bridge.
Catholic News Service photo
John Seigenthaler Sr., a journalist, writer and political figure,addresses the national assembly of the Ladies of Charity in Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 18 on his reflections of crossing the social justice bridge.
Catholic News Service

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John Seigenthaler, a legendary journalist, close friend and aide to Robert Kennedy, a fierce fighter for civil rights and one of Tennessee's most prominent and well-known Catholics, was recalled during his July 14 funeral Mass as a man who when confronted with injustice was compelled to respond.

In his eulogy, Charles Strobel, the founder and director of the Room In The Inn homeless shelter in Nashville and a longtime friend of Seigenthaler, quoted from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "Our  fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

"I believe this was John's driving purpose," Strobel said.

Seigenthaler died of cancer July 11 at his home in Nashville, surrounded by family. He was 86.

He was "a deeply spiritual man," Strobel said. "As long as we're concerned about the injustices of the world, we're concerned about God. ... Live this proposition as John did, that all women and men are created equal."

The funeral Mass drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,000  people to the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, where Seigenthaler had been baptized, grew up, attended school and was married.

Among those at the funeral were political figures, including 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  R. 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 Seigenthaler's career and life. Recording artist Jonell Mosser sang "Turn, Turn, Turn," inviting the congregation to join her in singing the refrain. Later country music star Emmy Lou Harris sang "We Shall Overcome," with the congregation spontaneously joining her halfway through the song.

The gospel choir led the singing of "This Little Light of Mine" and, as the casket was wheeled out of the cathedral, "I'll Fly Away."

In remarks at the end of the Mass, Seigenthaler's son, John Michael Seigenthaler, a news anchor for the Al Jazeera America television network, said it was fitting that friends and family were gathered together at the cathedral.

"From birth to death, the cathedral has hosted the seminal moments of the Seigenthaler family," he said.

Born July 27, 1927, John Seigenthaler was the eldest of the eight children of John Lawrence and Mary Brew Seigenthaler. He 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.

As a young high school student, Seigenthaler "was much like he was the  rest of his life," recalled Barrett. "He was very competitive. ... He was smart, very smart."

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.

After graduating from Father Ryan, Seigenthaler spent three years in the Air Force. After returning home, he attended George Peabody College for Teachers 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.

In journalism, he found his true vocation and 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. 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, the city of Nashville renamed that bridge in 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 Seigenthaler to edit his own book about the Teamsters, "The Enemy Within."

The two men formed a close professional and personal relationship, which extended to their families and continues today. In 1960, Seigenthaler took a leave from The Tennessean to work on John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign.

After Kennedy's election as president, 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 Seigenthaler to accompany a group of Freedom Riders to Alabama.

The Freedom Riders were attacked and when 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 Seigenthaler helped found, he was asked why he did such things as help the suicidal man on the bridge and the Freedom Rider who was attacked. His response, Strobel said, was "When you see it, how can you not respond?"

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. In1968 he took a leave to serve in the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy. He was campaign director for Northern California when Kennedy was assassinated on the night of the California primary.

In his later years as editor of The Tennessean, Seigenthaler also was 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, 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.

Seigenthaler also lent his expertise as a journalist to the Catholic Church, serving two terms as a consultant for the U.S. bishops' communications committee.

"He was terrific," recalled Tony Spence, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service. A former editor of the Tennessee Register, Nashville's diocesan newspaper, Spence also served as a consultant to the committee. "He had an unmatched depth of knowledge of how media operates across the country and the world. He contributed greatly to that committee. He also was a great supporter for first-rate Catholic journalism."

Seigenthaler was helpful to the Catholic Press Association as well, said Msgr. Owen Campion, associate editor of Our Sunday Visitor and also a  former editor of the Tennessee Register.

"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."

Besides his son and daughter-in-law Kerry Brock, Seigenthaler's survivors include his wife, Dolores, and grandson Jack Seigenthaler.

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