John Seigenthaler: A champion of the First Amendment

A lead pipe to the head will get your attention.

One day in 1961, Justice Department aide John Seigenthaler was brutally attacked with a pipe by Ku Klux Klansmen as he rushed to protect Freedom Riders arriving in Montgomery, Ala. The Klansmen left John in the street to die.

But John survived, going on to a rich career as a journalist and a passionate First Amendment advocate who would laugh about how Attorney General Bobby Kennedy thanked him for “using his head.” John died at 86 Friday morning in Nashville.

That blow to the head inspired self-deprecating jokes throughout his career, but it was also a defining point. You could knock John Seigenthaler down, but not for long.

I came to know John when I arrived in Nashville in 1997 to work with him at the First Amendment Center. He hired me because he had just turned 70 and was thinking about slowing down. Instead, he accelerated.

At a time when John could have rested on his laurels and simply attend dinners in his honor, he kept fighting. In recent years, he was an outspoken opponent of the death penalty in Tennessee. Some sought out John to help them raise money for their causes; John Seigenthaler was more interested in raising hell.

John was a crusading journalist in the truest sense. As editor of The Tennesseanin Nashville, he covered the Civil Rights movement when many Southern newspapers would not. He and his staff did important investigative reporting on Tennessee’s mental health system, the KKK and corruption in the Teamsters union.

John was also the first editorial page editor of the then-new USA TODAY in 1982, developing the most balanced opinion pages in the country. For everyUSA TODAY editorial there would be a countervailing view. John embraced light instead of heat.

He was fueled by his passion for the First Amendment, the sense that every voice has value. He liked to tell the story of a liberal woman who found conservative radio deeply offensive. He told her “whenever I want to hush Rush, I turn the knob.” With a pained expression she responded, “Then I get G. Gordon Liddy.” John would roar with each retelling.

In 1991 John retired from his newspaper role to found the First Amendment Center. It was a role he was born to. Long an advocate for the underdog, John was a passionate champion for the five freedoms that few Americans knew much about and inevitably took for granted.

His friends ranged from Al Gore and David Halberstam (both reported for him) to music royalty. I found Pete Seeger on his sofa and Tom T. Hall in his kitchen.

On the wall of John’s Nashville office is John Trumbull’s painting showing the founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence. In a playful act, the First Amendment staff had painted John’s head onto the body of Thomas Jefferson. It was a good fit.

John and I spent countless hours together talking to audiences across this nation about the need to protect the First Amendment. He reveled in the company of young people. At the close of his presentations, John would often tell the young audience that he was an old man without many years to live. He would call on them to continue his life’s work and fight the good fight for the First Amendment.

Students’ eyes would glisten as he closed: “I only ask however you can, whenever you can, please stand up for what Ben Franklin called a precious gift, worth preserving and protecting.” He would expect no less of us.

Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center, dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University and a member ofUSA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. This column first appeared in USA TODAY.

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