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John Seigenthaler, Tennessee journalist who worked for civil rights, dies

NASHVILLE — John Seigenthaler, the journalist who edited the Tennessean newspaper, helped shape USA Today and worked for civil rights during the John F. Kennedy administration, died Friday at age 86, his son said.

In his wide-ranging career, Seigenthaler also served on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign and founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

A statement from his son, broadcast journalist John Seigenthaler Jr., said his father died "peacefully at home," where he was recovering after a recent medical treatment.

"We celebrate his life — his devotion to social justice, his advocacy of human rights, and his enduring loyalty to friends and family," the statement said.

Seigenthaler began his journalism career in 1949 as a cub reporter for the Tennessean in Nashville. He worked as a reporter and assistant city editor until 1960, when he took a job as administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, who became attorney general in 1961 during the presidency of his brother.

While working for Kennedy, Seigenthaler served as chief negotiator with Alabama Gov. John Malcolm Patterson during the 1961 Freedom Rides organized by civil rights activists seeking to integrate interstate buses. During that crisis, he was attacked and knocked unconscious by Klansmen in Montgomery, Ala., as he tried to aid a young protester who was being pursued by the rioters.

In 1962, Seigenthaler returned to the Tennessean as editor, but took a leave of absence in 1968 to help Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign.

The New York Times said he is "one of a handful of advisers in whom the senator has absolute confidence." After Kennedy was assassinated that June, Seigenthaler was a pallbearer at his funeral.

Back at the Tennessean, he added the title of publisher to his resume in 1973. And in 1989, he became chairman, publisher and chief executive officer.

Also in the 1980s, he became the first editorial director as the Gannett Co. launched USA Today. He held the post for almost a decade. Gannett also owns the Tennessean.

After he retired from the Tennessean in 1991, Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. The mission of the center — an independent affiliate of the Arlington, Va.-based Freedom Forum — is to create national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment issues.

In August 2001, the university created a scholarship for minority students in Seigenthaler's name after he gave Vanderbilt $2 million. Seigenthaler said then that the scholarship would stand as a testimony that the cost of education is a worthy endeavor.

"It is expensive, education," he said. "But we've tried ignorance so many ways, and it doesn't work."

"A treasure for the nation," said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer at the Newseum Institute in Washington. "John was an extraordinary journalist and a passionate defender of those in need or facing discrimination."

In April 2014, the city of Nashville and a rights group honored Seigenthaler for his lifelong commitment to victims' causes. The city also renamed a downtown pedestrian bridge in honor of Seigenthaler, who prevented a suicidal man from jumping off the bridge 60 years ago when he was a Tennessean reporter.

He is survived by his wife, the former Dolores Watson; and their son, John Jr., a former weekend anchor for NBC News in New York who joined Al Jazeera America in 2013. A funeral is planned Monday in Nashville.

John Seigenthaler, Tennessee journalist who worked for civil rights, dies 07/11/14 [Last modified: Saturday, July 12, 2014 10:52am]
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