Series Blog

Remembering John Seigenthaler

The first time I met John Seigenthaler, I asked for ten minutes of his time. He talked to me for three hours. When I told his assistant Gay how grateful I was, she simply said, “That’s John. He loves to tell stories.”

It was 2010, and I was in Nashville for a public television conference. I was also in full-blown planning mode for American Experience’s Student Freedom Ride—a journey that would bring together college students and original Freedom Riders to commemorate the 1961 crusade for equality in interstate travel.

Nearly fifty years before, Mr. Seigenthaler was serving as the special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy when the administration dispatched him to the south as tensions between the young Freedom Riders and angry white southerners hit a breaking point. At the Kennedy brothers’ request, Mr. Seigenthaler traveled to Alabama in an attempt to diffuse what was rapidly becoming a very dangerous situation for civil rights workers. But his federal authority proved no match for the violence the Freedom Riders met in Montgomery. He too became a target, and while attempting to protect the Riders, he was hit over the head with a pipe and landed in the hospital.

The purpose of my visit was to ask him if he’d talk with our Student Freedom Riders when we passed through Nashville a few months later. But when I walked out of his office, his agreeing to meet with our students was almost a footnote to our visit. Over the course of three hours he told me how he came to know Robert Kennedy when, as a journalist in Nashville, he appealed to RFK to investigate corruption among the local Teamsters. He told me of the responsibility he felt to return to journalism years later, rather than staying on in what many would consider a very privileged role in the Kennedy administration. And he explained how, through his work in politics and journalism, he came to have a deep empathy for the civil rights workers. With an equal measure of pride, he showed me the letter his grandson Jack wrote to the president with a well-reasoned plea for the US to convert to the metric system.

Two years later, I was in his office again. This time, filmmaker Susan Bellows and I had traveled to Nashville to interview Mr. Seigenthaler for an upcoming biography of John F. Kennedy. Again, his deep knowledge and tremendous generosity were on full display. When, after a morning-long interview, he had to run to a lunchtime speaking engagement, he invited us to come back in the afternoon to finish the interview. It’s worth noting that he did this at age 84, after waging a battle with cancer.

All told, Mr. Seigenthaler was interviewed for three American Experience films. He participated in several events related to those films. And he did speak with our Student Freedom Riders when we visited Nashville. After he told them about his experience during the Freedom Rides—and about his grandson Jack—he also invited them to stay longer. He answered their questions. And posed for pictures.

One of those Student Freedom Riders was in Nashville a few months later and asked if he could stop by Mr. Seigenthaler’s office to say hello. He cleared his schedule and talked to the new college grad for two hours. When I heard that, I remember thinking, “That’s John. He loves to tell stories.”

At American Experience, we are grateful for Mr. Seigenthaler’s stories, for his time, and for his enduring contribution to this nation. He will be missed.

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