Sunday, July 20, 2014

John Seigenthaler's Search for Justice

       John Seigenthaler put me behind bars barely a year after I started working for him as a reporter at was then called the Nashville Tennessean. It was not the kind of assignment I had anticipated when I started out in journalism in my hometown after graduating from Harvard in 1970. But after one day in the Nashville-Davidson County jail and three days in the county workhouse, I turned out a creditable series detailing the somewhat squalid conditions in the two facilities.
       Seigenthaler, who died earlier this month [July 11] at age 86 after a storied career as editor and publisher at what is now simply The Tennessean, loved the undercover reporter technique of getting at hard-to-get stories. A few years earlier, he had sent John Hemphill, later an editor at the New York Times, to do the jail and workhouse story. Other undercover stories he assigned included exposes of conditions in nursing homes (Nat Caldwell, a Pulitzer Prize winner), the state’s major mental hospital (Frank Sutherland, later editor in Nashville himself), and, most daringly, the Ku Klux Klan – infiltrated for nearly a year by Jerry Thompson, a good old boy who could pass as a redneck racist despite a heart of gold.
       Modern day journalism ethicists disapprove of the undercover technique; deception, they say, is incompatible with the truth-telling mission of the true journalism. But Seig — as he was known to his staff and countless friends was a newspaperman of the old school. As a cub reporter in the early 1950s, he earned his stripes by talking a would-be suicide off what was then the Shelby Street Bridge (now renamed the Seigenthaler Bridge in his honor). He won a National Headliner award for his story of tracking down a business executive and his wife who had faked their deaths to collect insurance money.
       Later, Seig uncovered corruption in Teamsters union locals in Tennessee, stories that led to the impeachment of a bribe-taking state court judge and eventually to the jury tampering trial of Teamsters president James Hoffa. The Teamsters stories brought him to the attention of the young Robert F. Kennedy, then counsel to a Senate investigating committee. Seig edited RFK’s book The Enemy Within, cementing a relationship that put him inside the Kennedy circle for life and took him to Washington to work for Kennedy at the Justice Department for a year.
       As Kennedy’s right-hand man, Seigenthaler was dispatched to Montgomery, Ala., in May 1961 to try to protect the group of Freedom Riders traveling from Nashville to Alabama to claim their rights to desegregated interstate transportation. A white mob blocked the buses and beat many of the riders; one in the crowd used a lead pipe to smash Seigenthaler’s skull. He lay unconscious at the scene for 45 minutes, according to the accounts, and spent 10 days in a hospital.
       Seigenthaler was remembered in the Tennessean’s obituary as “a fierce advocate for racial equality” — and so he was, but not from birth. He grew up unaware of the racial segregation that the family’s black maid lived with when she left their home.
      After becoming editor of the Tennessean in 1962, however, Seigenthaler put the paper’s news and editorial columns behind the civil rights revolution. He hired the first black reporter in the newsroom, W. A. (Bill) Reed. As religion editor, Reed’s assignments included the weekly Monday story “A Reporter Goes to Church.” When the influential pastor of one of the city’s biggest churches objected to being covered by a black reporter, Seigenthaler told him that Bill was the paper’s religion reporter. Period.
       Less visibly but just as sincerely, Seig later became a strong supporter of LGBT equality. Without fanfare, he supported and protected gay reporters in the newsrooms of the ’70s and ’80s from any unenlightened attitudes from inside or outside the newspaper. After he retired, he funded the National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Association’s awards for radio and TV coverage of LGBT issues. And in 2004 he was the moderator of what was described as Nashville’s first public forum on LGBT issues, cosponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and American Civil Liberties Union.
       After putting me on the court beat in fall 1971, Seigenthaler gave me valuable pointers and backed me up whenever I needed it in my often critical coverage of the bar and the judiciary. Forty years later, I am still covering the courts, and I still share the disappointment that Seigenthaler often voiced that the bench and bar so often fail to deliver justice, especially to racial and ethnic minorities and the poor.
       Not long after my jail story, Seigenthaler co-authored the book A Search for Justice with three of the newspaper’s reporters: Hemphill, Frank Ritter, and Jim Squires. The book was based on the reporters’ coverage of the trials of assassins James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan and of Clay Shaw, the New Orleans district attorney turned JFK-assassination conspiracy theorist. Seig’s opening chapter is a blistering criticism of the criminal justice system.
       My copy includes this inscription: “For Ken — I gave him a look at ‘justice’ early and he gave me a look at injustice. With regards for his willingness to search, John Seigenthaler.” The search goes on, John. Requiescat in pace.
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