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Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    John Seigenthaler grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, during the late 1920s and 1930s. He begins the interview by recalling his growing awareness of racial injustice in the South during the mid-1940s, explaining that his observations of racism inspired him to pursue a career as a writer. Seigenthaler recounts his childhood awareness of local politics, offering several anecdotes regarding his uncle's interactions with Edward Hull "Boss" Crump of Memphis and his own early proclivity for progressive politics. In 1949, Seigenthaler became a reporter for The Tennessean, a major Nashville newspaper. Arguing that it was a progressive southern newspaper, Seigenthaler speaks at length about journalism in the South. During the 1950s, Seigenthaler became a renowned investigative reporter; he offers vignettes about some of his most memorable investigations, including the unveiling of voter fraud in a rural Appalachian county, the murder of an African American man by a white cab driver in Camden, Tennessee, and his confrontation with the Teamsters in that state.

    The latter investigation brought him into contact with Robert F. Kennedy in the late 1950s. The two men forged a strong working relationship and personal friendship, and in 1960, Seigenthaler helped to campaign for John F. Kennedy's presidential run. Shortly after the election, Seigenthaler declined a position as newly-appointed Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's press secretary, preferring to keep journalism and politics separate. Still, he wanted to work for the administration, so he accepted a job as RFK's administrative assistant instead. During his short tenure working for the Justice Department, Seigenthaler played an instrumental role in negotiating with Alabama Governor John Patterson and Eugene "Bull" Connor for the safe passage of the Freedom Riders in 1961, which he describes in detail.

    In 1962, Seigenthaler left the Justice Department to become the editor of The Tennessean. He speaks at length and in great detail about the changing nature of southern journalism during the 1960s and 1970s, paying particular attention to the impact of cultural homogenization and the corporate takeover of regional newspapers. According to Seigenthaler, during the 1960s and early 1970s, racism and poverty were not problems for the South alone but for the nation as a whole. In addition, Seigenthaler laments that the trend toward moderation in national politics would limit social justice activism. The interview concludes with Seigenthaler's commentary about Robert F. Kennedy's assassination and his role in Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign.

    Excerpts
  • Growing awareness of racial injustice
  • Local Nashville politics and family political leanings
  • Vignettes from investigative reporting in the 1950s
  • Investigating the Teamsters and connecting with Robert F. Kennedy
  • The Kennedys' representative recalls the Freedom Rides
  • Unique nature of southern journalism and the impact of homogenization and corporate control
  • Southern heritage, nationalization of southern culture, and the politics of moderation
  • Homogenization of national culture and its impact on the South
  • Participation in Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 Presidential Campaign
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • North Carolina--Race relations
  • Civil rights--North Carolina
  • Press and politics--North Carolina
  • Tennessee--Politics and government
  • Kennedy family
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.