First Amendment: Remembering a man who championed freedom
Freedom of Speech has lost one of its most eloquent voices.
Freedom of Religion is today without one of its truest believers.
Freedom of the Press has one less compelling writer—and one of its most exceptional editors.
Freedom of Assembly has one less person to stand with others—50 years after he risked his life as a young man in defense of those marching peaceably for justice.
And the Right to Petition peaceably for change has one less champion to call out to those in power for positive change.
John Seigenthaler, 86, led The Tennessean newspaper in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn., was the first editorial director of USA Today, and was founder of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.
Seigenthaler died July 11 after being hospitalized briefly. More than 4,000 people lined up for the visitation at the First Amendment Center on July 13, and his funeral was conducted July 14.
During John’s 40-plus year tenure as a journalist, he more than lived up to the old charge of that profession to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Even in his later years, when he left daily newspaper work for his beloved First Amendment Center, his voice and his passion for justice raged on.
Whether it was lobbying for long-delayed college diplomas for now-aged former students denied graduation because of their civil rights work, or parole and then freedom, rather than the death penalty, for a woman he felt was unjustly sentenced—he worked, advised, strategized and inspired others to demand fairness and action.
He helped integrate Nashville churches by assigning a black reporter for the first time to do The Tennessean’s weekly report on Sunday sermons—just one of the many ways he took a larger-than-life role as editor in opposing bigotry, and pursuing claims of corruption, cheating, and back-room dealing in local and state government.
History notes that Seigenthaler was knocked unconscious in Montgomery, Ala., while attempting to rescue two Freedom Riders from a Klan-led mob, while serving as a personal representative of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
His friendship with the Kennedys led to the only real departure from journalism, in the early ’60s during JFK’s campaign and later as a top aide to RFK. 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.
As host of “A Word on Words,” one of public broadcasting’s longest-running programs, he interviewed hundreds of authors—and may have terrorized more than a few by having actually read the books he wanted to discuss.
A yellow Post-it-Note-filled desk and credenza, jammed with notes, papers, books-to-be-read, and letters dominated his office at the Center—with walls filled with photos that held the journalism-First Amendment-family triad that filled his years.
Rising high above him on the wall behind his desk chair is a large, faux copy of a painting of the signing by the nation’s Founders of the Declaration of Independence, framed and presented by his First Amendment Center colleagues. Visitors often did a double take when they realized the historically incorrect painting had one more inconsistency—John’s face had been artfully painted-in where the painting portrayed Thomas Jefferson. As he entered his 80s, Seigenthaler joked that he felt old enough to have been around for the signing.
But age was not that kind of barrier to Seigenthaler, known for having several projects in the air at one time—and for a meeting and travel schedule that would exhaust those half his age. Whether debating the finer points of First Amendment law or relishing in the ins and outs of Nashville political life or researching books or preparing for TV programs, Seigenthaler was the embodiment of the concept that supports the First Amendment: The “marketplace of ideas.”
John Seigenthaler lived a life dedicated to encouraging the greatest possible number of his fellow citizens to participate in that marketplace and to using their First Amendment freedoms to the fullest. Each year, he’d review the results of the annual State of the First Amendment national survey, showing that most Americans can’t name all five freedoms in the First Amendment—and redouble his efforts to raise the score.
Just recently, Nashville named a downtown walking bridge across the Cumberland River in Seigenthaler’s name—to recognize his work in seeking equality for all, but also to note an incident in which 50 years ago as a young reporter he grasped the clothing of a man attempting to jump from the bridge railing—holding him until police rushed up to assist.
No doubt many words will be spoken of John’s many roles as editor, publisher, founder, author, TV host, lecturer, educator and more. But I think he’d be very happy if we remembered him with just five: Religion. Press. Speech. Assembly. Petition.
While the customary end for a news story was the proofreader’s mark “-30-”, I think the more appropriate one for John is (based on the number of words in his beloved First Amendment) is this: “-45-”
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.