NASHVILLE, Tenn. – 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 his Nashville home 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” while recovering from medical treatment.
Seigenthaler began his journalism career in 1949 as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. 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 the governor of Alabama 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 a mob of Klansmen in Montgomery, Alabama, as he tried to aid a young protester who was being pursued by the rioters.
“I never saw anything in my life … to compare with the violence on that parking lot at that Greyhound station,” Seigenthaler said in an interview in January. “… How can you take your children out to a race riot, and expect them to grow up as decent human beings?”