By any measure, John Seigenthaler’s personal history is fascinating.
A self-described “son of the racist South,” Seigenthaler grew up in Nashville where, although a parent read to him every night, he considered the black women employed by his family to be his surrogate mothers. Still, if a black person passed him while heading to the rear of a city bus, he didn’t see them.
“If you were white, you were blind to their existence,” Seigenthaler said during his presentation at the 2007 Conference of the Association of Personal Historians in Nashville earlier this week.
That changed one day in the late 1940s as Seigenthaler worked in the control tower at McDill Field in Tampa, Florida. From his vantage point he could see his fellow airmen spill out from the barracks below, whites on one side, blacks on the other. Suddenly, it struck him. This is wrong.
“Where was my mind?” he said. “Where was my heart?”
When he left the service, Seigenthaler had the great fortune of having an uncle that served on the board of a newspaper group. Pick where you want to work, said the uncle. Seigenthaler picked Nashville’s Tennessean, a feisty, aggressive newspaper where he saw effecting change as a possibility.
Seigenthaler joined a newsroom staff that in the late 1950s was overflowing with young talent that would make its mark for decades to come. There was David Halberstam, the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and author; Tom Wicker, a one-time New York Times Washington bureau chief and author of several books about U.S. presidents; Fred Graham, now a Court TV anchor who then was wrapping up his law studies at Vanderbilt University and Wallace Westfeldt, who went on to produce the Huntley and Brinkley news shows for NBC-TV.
Student sit-ins had their birth in Nashville around that time, putting the young reporters at the forefront of a movement that would ignite change across the land. But, when new management shifted coverage of the emerging civil rights struggle to the Associated Press, the discouraged luminaries departed. That included Seigenthaler, who became an assistant to attorney general Bobby Kennedy in the early 1960s.
It was in this role that Seigenthaler was badly beaten and hospitalized during a Freedom Ride confrontation. Another change in management at The Tennessean resulted in Seigenthaler’s return. He would continue in the newspaper business for the rest of his career, except for a brief stint with Kennedy’s ill-fated presidential campaign in 1968.
Most recently, he has written a book about President James J. Polk but Seigenthaler admitted to the gathering of personal historians this week that he has yet to start on his own memoirs.
“It’s just in the last couple of years I’ve started to think ‘What am I going to do with all this stuff’?” the 80-year-old Seigenthaler said. “If I don’t get it down, I’ll feel disappointed. I guess I’ll feel kind of like a failure. We’ve all got these great stories to tell.”
Luckily for Seigenthaler, he’s left a voluminous public record of his life. The rest of us are rarely so fortunate. The time to collect those stories that are important to us is now.
Larry Lehmer is a personal historian who helps people preserve their family histories. If you’d like to know more, visit his web site or send him an e-mail.
Photo: John Seigenthaler in Nashville by lwlehmer.