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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Growing awareness of racial injustice

Seigenthaler talks about his early perceptions of race as a child in Nashville, Tennessee. Arguing that initially he was largely unaware of issues related to race, particularly racism, Seigenthaler explains that his service in the military during World War II opened his eyes to racial injustice. He offers a brief anecdote regarding his growing interest in assuaging racial injustice after his return home, which ultimately led him to pursue a career in journalism.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I think that I grew up almost unaware that the South was "different." I was not exposed to that many blacks. I think that I probably led a more sheltered life than most. My mother was Irish and my father was German-Irish. After Christmas, the big holiday in our family was St. Patrick's Day. I was aware that there was a difference in being a Catholic in the South, but I never can honestly say that I felt any sort of persecution or prejudice. As for other minorities, Nashville has never had that many blacks . . . it is about 30% inside of what we call the "old city" of Nashville, but we have metropolitan government—city and county consolidation—and it's about 17% now in the total community.
BILL FINGER:
You say that your uncle worked with the newspaper?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
He was vice-president and director of circulation for both Nashville newspapers.
BILL FINGER:
Is this your father's brother?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
My father's brother.
BILL FINGER:
Was the newspaper then a kind of a part of your family? Were you close to that particular uncle?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
I was close to him, but not that close. I always wanted to write. I really thought that I was going to teach school. I came back from service and went to Peabody College here with an eye on teaching school. But I got into this, the newspaper, and I was good at it. I liked it. I was fascinated by it. I was a control tower operator during World War II. I think that I became aware of absolute separation of the races in the Air Force and it struck me. I remember in the early mornings that I used to look down on that field—the barracks—and it was a physically, racially separated Air Force. It always fascinated me, as I looked down from the tower, that the blacks could march so damn much better than the whites. I mean, they really had it, you know. And if I ever had expressed it in those days the way that I saw it, I would have been accused of overt racism. But they just were better at marching than the white troops. They took more pride in the way they marched: they had more fun when they marched. They enjoyed it . . . God, it sounds like I'm saying, "I listen to them out front, picking the banjo and singing ‘Mammy’." But the inequity of it all began to dawn on me then. I did some writing about that—essays for myself more than anything else. Shortly after I came out of service my sister was a finalist in a statewide speech contest and she asked me to help her with some ideas for her speech. I was very much concerned about this whole racial thing by that time. I had been exposed to blacks in Tampa, in service, but also the reality of Spanish-speaking Americans there and their problems. So, I remember that we sat down to work on this speech I talked her into writing on racial injustice. It was a religious-oriented contest. The first line of the speech that I gave her was, "The Man on the Cross had slanted eyes, his skin was black and they called him a Jew." I thought that was a hell of a line. It's controversial as hell, but she won with it. That year there were blacks in that contest for the first time. And my mother said, "They're coming from Memphis, and where will they stay, or who will entertain them? We will have to have someone to have a party?" And so, we took two blacks home and had a party for them. I remember the great furor about that.
JIM TRAMEL:
Is this '45 or '46?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
About '45 or '46. My mother is still alive and, at 72, a beautiful woman. I never have understood why she wanted to do that—have a party for blacks. I put a lot of pressure on her, maybe. It was beginning to get to me by then—racial injustice issues, in '46. It was beginning to get to me, heavy.