John Seigenthaler: Champion of the First Amendment

John Seigenthaler illustration


A lead pipe to the head will get your attention.

One day in 1961, U.S. 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, Alabama. The Klansmen left John in the street to die.

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

You could knock John Seigenthaler down, but not for long.

John was a crusading journalist in the truest sense. As editor (and later publisher and CEO) of The Tennessean in Nashville, he covered the civil rights movement when many Southern newspapers would not.

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

He was fueled by his passion for the First Amendment, the sense that every voice has value. In 1991, John retired from his newspaper role to found the First Amendment Center [at Vanderbilt and in Washington, D.C.]. It was a role he was born to.

He reveled in the company of young people. At the close of his presentations, John often would tell his 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.

A longer version of this essay by Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, first appeared in USA Today after John Seigenthaler’s death July 11.

Read more about John Seigenthaler’s life and longtime relationship with Vanderbilt.