On Oct. 15, veteran Nashville journalists John Egerton and John Seigenthaler sat down for a conversation in Seigenthaler’s office in the First Amendment Center on the campus of Vanderbilt University. Egerton, 77, a veteran freelancer and the author of many acclaimed books, came to Nashville in 1965 as a magazine staff writer and has been based there ever since. Seigenthaler, 85, was born in Nashville, went to work as a reporter for The Tennessean in 1949, and retired 42 years later as the paper’s editor and publisher. Egerton has called Seigenthaler “the foremost journalist in Tennessee history.” In addition to his contributions at The Tennessean, Seigenthaler also served as the first editorial director of USA Today, as chairman of both the John F. Kennedy “Profiles in Courage” Awards and the Robert F. Kennedy National Book Awards and as founder of the First Amendment Center, which now bears his name.
Chapter 16 has published an abridged version of the Egerton-Seigenthaler conversation in two segments. The first, which appears below, focuses on books, newspapers, and the printed word. The second, which appears at Chapter16.org, concerns an unvetted Wikipedia entry on Seigenthaler that falsely implicated him in the murders of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.
John Egerton: All through your youth, even when you were a big kid, your mom and dad both read to the children, starting with you, the eldest, and expanding to a total of eight.
John Seigenthaler: Absolutely. It was a nightly habit, and they each read, I guess, from their own background of interest. I remember my mother started with the Junior Classics and graduated to Shakespeare. She was reading Shakespeare to me by the time I was 7 or 8 years old. And there are speeches from Shakespeare I can recite right now:
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it
To you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it,
As many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier
Spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with
Your hand, thus. …
Egerton: What’s that from?
Seigenthaler: It’s from Hamlet.
Egerton: My God, that is impressive.
Seigenthaler: Not impressive, just — it’s my mother. I memorized. And if you listen to all that reading, when the time comes to write, you’ve got something. You understand what a simple declarative sentence is — and we both know that’s maybe the toughest thing to write.
Egerton: It is. OK, so then you go to Father Ryan High School, and you have an encounter with Father Goett.
Seigenthaler: Theophane Goett. He was a Franciscan priest and he was teaching me math. And one day I’m headed down the corridor, and for some reason he calls my name out and gives me The Mind of the South, [W.J.] Cash’s book. And it just rang my bell. It made such a difference to me. What is puzzling is why this man in a long brown robe, with a white rope around his waist and sandals on his feet, among maybe 150 kids he teaches during the course of a week, singles me out to read that book. And it made an impact.
Egerton: Cash had written an article called “The Mind of the South” in Harper’s or The Atlantic or someplace. And Alfred Knopf, the publisher, saw that article and sought out Jack Cash in Raleigh-Durham and pleaded with him to make a book out of it because he saw from that one article that this was a vision of what the South is, and what was about to happen to it, that nobody else seemed to have around that time. It was not a polemical book — not a call to action for liberal white and blacks.
Seigenthaler: No, it was not.
Egerton: It was a very erudite and thoughtful and penetrating book. The book came out, and Cash was terrified of what the reaction would be. Partly fearful, I guess, of what would happen around him, in the South, but also he was a quiet guy who didn’t like the limelight. The book was generally well-received. It got good reviews in the New York papers. But he hanged himself with his own necktie in his hotel room in Mexico City soon thereafter. I want to come back to Cash and books and the South of that era later on, but first, you went in the Air Force for three years, and in 1949 you came back to Nashville, and your uncle helped you get a job at The Tennessean. Did you have any ambition at that time to be a newspaper reporter?
Seigenthaler: I had written in high school. I had written for the paper. I really, though, wanted to be a schoolteacher. I guess it was reading that maybe hooked me on that. I had continued to read heavily while I was in the Air Force. I read a lot, and I did write for the base newspaper. When I got out, my uncle, who worked for the newspaper, brought me in to meet Coley Harwell. I sat down with Coleman Harwell and Joe Hatcher, who was the managing editor in those days. And they had asked me to write something, and I can’t remember what I wrote, but I remember Hatcher said, “Look, you can write. All you have to remember is, just get it right.” And so I got it right as often as I could.
Egerton: By the next year, by 1950, what was to become the most consequential social event in our lifetimes was beginning to work its way through the courts. The Brown v. Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court in 1954 was preceded by a whole raft of cases that came up through the courts in ’50, ’51, ’52. And you had been at The Tennessean for five years by then, by 1954. In thinking back on this, you say that you didn’t see that coming. Nobody white saw it coming.
Egerton: Everybody was in denial, and here came Brown, and you’re living in Nashville, working at the newspaper. All white guys, no women except Nellie Kenyon [a veteran court reporter]. No blacks. Segregation was everywhere. The churches were that way, business was that way. And here comes this story. And the first thing you knew about it was when the Catholic bishop in Nashville desegregated the Catholic schools that fall.
Seigenthaler: That’s right.
Egerton: What do you remember about that?
Seigenthaler: Well, I remember he was an interesting guy. Bishop William L. Adrian, he’s the guy who did it. If you read his writings — and he wrote extensively after he retired — he was a religious conservative, but he also understood that, Brown v. Board of Education or not, the time had come to do something about segregation in the schools.
Egerton: And they did, and did it right then.
Seigenthaler: That’s right, did it ahead of everybody else.
Egerton: Ahead of the public schools and all the rest. In that whole decade of the ’50s, a lot happened [on the desegregation issue]. Nashville happened, Little Rock happened. The Truman-Eisenhower years. You went for a Neiman (Fellowship at Harvard) in 1958-59, I believe. And you had all these guys you worked with down at the paper: Gene Graham, Fred Graham, Nat Caldwell, Dick Harwood, David Halberstam and Wallace Westfeldt and Tom Wicker, all those people, working for Coleman Harwell.
Seigenthaler: He hired them all.
Egerton: And somehow, either by accident or by his design, he had picked a bunch of Southern white guys — or out-of-South white guys like Halberstam — who were basically liberal Democrats.
Egerton: How did he do that?
Seigenthaler: You know, I don’t know. Westfeldt was first — he was older; he and Coley had both gone to Sewanee. A couple of years ago, maybe just last year, Westfeldt sent me a copy of a memo from 1953. Coley has written to him, and he says, “I think we should create a team now that begins to look not just at education, but at race generally in the South.” And the result of that was that there was an informal group talking about race during that time.
Westfeldt was charming, and he was smart. And he had been off on a fellowship the year before he wrote this memo, and he puts together this group, and we don’t meet very often, but when we meet, he’s making sure that we are reading everything that we should be reading. Harwell saw this as a way to get us together and to get our heads on straight about where the paper ought to be and where we were going to go. Harwell was creating, in that newsroom a culture, a core of young reporters — Wicker, Halberstam, me; Richard Harwood came later. And it was just occasional sitting down with Coley and talking about where things are going and how things are going. And all of us were assigned to go to [Fisk sociologist] Herman Long’s Race Relations Law Institute. At least one summer, maybe two, we all went out there and sat in on conferences and then talked among ourselves about it.
But the exchange of original memos between Coley and Wally comes before Brown comes, and is anticipatory. He says, “It’s coming and I’d like for this staff to be prepared.” What he was really trying to do was make sure there were people on that staff who had their heads on straight and who were going to report the news the way the news broke.
Egerton: Around the time of the Brown decision, Carlton Loser — the Tennessee district attorney general for Davidson County for almost 20 years before he was elected to Congress in 1956 — gave you a book called South of Freedom.
Seigenthaler: Yeah, by Carl Rowan.
Egerton: Carl Rowan, who was born and raised down near McMinnville, in a family that traced back to slavery. Rowan went to the Minneapolis Tribune and became a great reporter and then wrote South of Freedom about trips that he made down into the South. So here’s another W.J. Cash red flag being waved at everybody in the South who thought they could defend segregation forever. There were now these other people saying, “Think again, you’re not going to be able to.” And Carlton Loser, when he was the D.A. here, gave you that book. Well, why did he give you that book? Was this another Father Goett moment?
Seigenthaler: It is exactly the same
circumstance. I have no idea.
For the second half of this conversation — and more local books coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, a publication of Humanities Tennessee.
On Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7 p.m., John Seigenthaler will speak on “First Amendment Challenges Posed by New Media Technology” at the Massey Performing Arts Center on Belmont University campus in Nashville. The event is free and open to the public. On Nov. 8 at 11:30 a.m., Seigenthaler will receive the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee’s 2012 Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award. Tickets to that event are $75.