John SeigenthalerU.S. Federal Government Nashville, TN
John Seigenthaler was a native of Nashville, TN who worked as a newspaper reporter at The Nashville Tennessean prior to working with Robert Kennedy on a committee investigating organized crime. In January 1961 he became a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Seigenthaler described his privileged upbringing and how it left him blind to the problems of Jim Crow.
"I grew up in the South, the child of good and decent parents..." he recalls in Freedom Riders. "I don't know where my head or heart was, or my parents' heads and hearts, or my teachers'. I never heard it once from the pulpit. We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid of change."
As special assistant to the Attorney General, Seigenthaler initially served as the intermediary between the federal government, the Freedom Riders, and white segregationist state officials. His task was to convince the Freedom Riders to cease their direct action and accept a "cooling off" period, while ensuring their physical safety from mob violence. The administration believed that as a white Southerner from Tennessee, Seigenthaler would share a common bond with Governor Patterson of Alabama and other members of the Deep South establishment.
"I'd go in, my Southern accent dripping sorghum and molasses, and warm them up," he explained.
Seigenthaler successfully arranged for the original CORE Freedom Riders to depart from Birmingham on May 15 by plane, after a lack of willing bus drivers had blocked their progress. However, he soon learned that the federal government held little sway on the issue of race relations in Alabama. He was knocked unconscious while attempting to aid two Freedom Riders during the May 20 riot at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, after telling assailants to stop and respect his authority as a federal official.
Seigenthaler went on to work on Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, before returning to journalism. He later became editor, publisher, and CEO of Nashville's The Tennessean and founding editorial director of USA Today. He founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in 1961 with the mission of creating national discussion about First Amendment rights and values.