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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 >>

Local Nashville politics and family political leanings

Seigenthaler discusses his awareness of Nashville politics as he grew up during the late 1920s and 1930s. In particular, Seigenthaler discusses the role of Edward Hull "Boss" Crump of Memphis in Nashville politics, focusing especially on his uncle's interactions with him. Seigenthaler offers several anecdotes regarding the political beliefs of his grandfather and his uncle, noting that his own parents tended to stay out of politics while simultaneously instilling in him progressive views.

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

BILL FINGER:
So, there wasn't much, say, overt politics in your family, around the dinner table discussions?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Well, my grandfather . . . and we lived during one period with him, was intimately involved with local politics, really up to his ass in it. But . . . it was always local politics. I remember my grandmother—my mother's mother—saying that on election night she used to worry about him. He'd always put on his pistol and go out.
BILL FINGER:
Right here in Nashville?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
That's right. And he used to tell great stories about the old days in politics. On my father's side, his brother, Louis, was the son-in-law of Bill Jones, who was Nashville's agent of Boss Crump. So politics was always there. Periodically, Uncle Louis' job with the state government would come up for family discussion. Every election, Uncle Louis' job was either in jeapordy or safe. He was either going to get promoted or he was going to get fired, depending on how Crump did. And in those days, Crump always did very well. I always was aware of politics at the very base level.
BILL FINGER:
Having a job and that kind of thing?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
That kind of thing. Or literally running the town for four years, which I always thought Bill Jones did. I mean, he was literally Boss Crump's boss in town.
BILL FINGER:
Crump controlled Nashville?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yes, Crump controlled much of Nashville politics through Bill Jones. And usually, they won. Later on, Uncle Louis had a tough time with his job. As a matter of fact, when I came here as editor in 1962, he was working in our press room. As a boy he had started out in the press room, and that's where he died. He came to see me and asked if he could come back, he still held his union card. Uncle Walter was circulation director and he and I were both helpful to Uncle Louis, and he came back.
JIM TRAMEL:
So your sense of politics was more local than state?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
By far. Another thing that stands out in my mind going back: I remember those conventions about Uncle Louis. I remember conversations with my grandfather. My grandfather used to tell stories about how he was helping some guy get elected county registrar or county trustee. He once was helping a veterinarian named Boots Brown in a race for some office. This was one of the great stories that he used to tell. He was helping Boots. And they ran a man against Boots who didn't have any legs. He told this story many times . . . (Note: This page has been retyped because of extensive editing on the original. Portions of the original transcript have been deleted from this page.) My grandfather Brew's home place was right up here at 12th and Broad just within two hundred yards from where we are sitting in my office on the other side of the street. They had a parade on election eve that came down Broad Street toward town. I guess that it started right around here. And they put this fellow running against Boots Brown up in a buggy. And they propped the stubs of his legs over the edge of the buggy, and started down across the viaduct. And my grandfather and Boots, the candidate, were standing in the background of this crowd across the viaduct there. And my grandfather said, "Boots, you are beaten. Your own mother wouldn't vote for you if she sees that son-of-a-bitch like that." Well, I remember that story and I can recall dozens of stories of his involvement in local politics. I remember that he was involved in such things as getting people to pay their poll taxes, or telling people that they should pay their poll taxes. He was sort of a precinct politico for many years. By the time that I got old enough to know anything about it, he had gotten older himself and was out of a good deal of it. But again, it was all local and not state. One of the other things that I remember . . . it's funny, the things that I remember are things that come back to me as things that I'm proud to remember about my family. My father was a contractor and he had a man working for him named Gene Woodruff. And Gene Woodruff had a brother named Horace Woodruff. I remember as a child, hearing around the table that Horace was an animal. I didn't know what that meant until suddenly, Horace killed a policeman named Mike Mulvehill and was sentenced to go to the electric chair. I remember my father and my grandfather and my Uncle Louis sitting down in the living room, and I don't know where I was, but I was somewhere around there, talking about arranging to go to see the governor to ask for Horace Woodruff's life. They did do that and Horace Woodruff's life was spared. Well, then a year or two later, he led a break in which three or four people were killed. Another inmate, Lonnie Taylor had his arm shot off. Again they went and again . . . they helped save him. Horace Woodruff spent twelve years on death row after that. I became a reporter and got involved in prison reform and went out there to do some stories. I had been out there maybe six months doing stories and one day, I was going through and the warden, a fellow named Droupie Edwards, said, "The fellow who runs our radio shop would like to see you." I went into the shop. He said, "I'm Horace Woodruff, your father helped save my life." I became . . . an intimate friend of his. And later . . . I think that without question he would say I was instrumental in getting him out on parole. The cop's family opposed parole everytime he came up. But Horace, in his late 50's, finally got out on parole. I was editor at the time. I remember as a child hearing that story about Horace Woodruff, the animal. I knew his brother, Gene. He was always around our house. I remember that very well. You know, I am strongly opposed to capital punishment and I don't know how much of it relates to that experience. I'm relatively sure that my father was not against capital punishment. I know that my mother was not against capital punishment. But when it came to Gene Woodruff's brother, they wanted to save him. They called him an animal before that. (Note: This page has been retyped because of extensive editing on the original. Portions of the original transcript have been deleted from this page.)
JIM TRAMEL:
It's interesting that you, as a liberal southern journalist, there was nothing in your family background that would . . . the period that we are talking about is the time when Kefauver was challenging McKellar and Crump.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Right. Before that, even.
JIM TRAMEL:
But your family, if anything, was on the other side.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
That's right, at least on my father's side. My uncle Louis, I am sure, would have been against Kefauver. Now my father was pretty independent of my Uncle Louis. But I would suspect that Uncle Louis probably always voted with Crump. Uncle Walter was, on the other hand, identified more with the Tennessean, which was against Crump. He had come up with the (Note: This page has been retyped because of extensive editing on the original. Portions of the original transcript have been deleted from this page.) Tennessean and he would have identified with Luke Lea and later with Silliman Evans and the anti-Crump forces. His brother would have been the son-in-law of Crump's agent in Nashville. But both Uncle Walter and my father were almost apolitical. Uncle Walter identified with Colonel Lee, who owned the newspaper before Silliman Evans. He identified with Colonel Lee and against Jimmy Stahlman. Really, the added split in Tennessee politics was inside the Democratic party and was a prohibition versus anti-prohibition split. Colonel Lee identified very strongly with the drys, although he was a wet. And his editor, Edward Ward Carmack, a former United States Senator, was murdered on the street in downtown Nashville. The wet forces identified with Crump and the dry forces—Lea and Carmack—were anti-Crump. Wet and dry didn't mean a damn thing philosophically, or in any way except politically. Well, my uncle Walter came up on the dry side, with the anti-Crump forces. That's the uncle who was with the newspaper. The other uncle, Louis, was the son-in-law of Crump's man in town, so there was that dichotomy of interests within the family. And I suspect that my father was probably caught in the middle. And he went about his contracting business and didn't give a damn one way or the other.