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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 >>

Investigating the Teamsters and connecting with Robert F. Kennedy

Seigenthaler describes his investigative reporting against the Teamsters in Nashville, Tennessee, locally, and in the state, more broadly. After explaining why he decided to write about the Teamsters and their hold over local and state politics, Seigenthaler describes how his investigation of the Teamsters led to his initial contact with Robert F. Kennedy, whom he later worked for in the Justice Department.

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

What was your first contact with the Kennedys?
Yeah, I was involved with the investigation of the Teamsters here, starting in 1956.
Did you cover that?
I covered it. Nobody else on our staff really wanted it. It was a liberal newspaper: we had been sympathetic to organized labor. I had strong positive feelings about organized labor. I didn't want it either. I had been covering the federal courts and working on the city desk on weekends, as part-time city editor. But it was just so tough, what had been going on in this community, so blatant and so wrong, that I couldn't ignore it. They were blowing up buildings, beating the hell out of truck company owners. It was really organizing by violence. And in those days, I was not in any sense of the word a pacifist. But it was obvious that not only was the labor-management process being undermined but that politics were being undermined. They were literally raising hell all over town. They would blow up a beer place. A dozen cars in a car lot would have sugar poured into them, in the gas tanks. I really didn't know how big it was. But I knew something big was going on. And then, when the cases would come up in court, invariably they would be dropped. I tried my best to stay away from it as long as I could and then I just couldn't stay away from it any longer. Three or four fellows inside the union came to me and began to tell me stories. They began to talk and I began to write their stories first and the next thing I knew, I was into it. Up to my nose, I was into it. It was a horror story. It was really a disaster, what was going on in this town. And the police department, some of its ranking officials, were members of the union—had held positions in the union-years before that I hadn't known anything about. The deeper I got into it, I saw that the political process was being undermined. Halfway through, Coley Harwell saw me, and with just one sentence he could cut you down. And he said, "Look, I've been very proud of what you are doing." By this time, I was getting all sorts of phone calls. I said, "Well, thank you very much." He said, "But before we go too far, I'm getting congratulations from members of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club. It's very upsetting to me. I think that we ought to take another look at what we are doing and make sure that we are on the right side." Well, he said it in a funny way, you know, but I worried about that, too. All through '56 and then, by '57, it had turned around. I had a handle on it and I hit it so hard, so regularly, exposed it. It was not just local, it was statewide. And they had a bomb squad and a squad of sluggers that really were operating all through the South. There was a judge in Chattanooga who had been corrupted by it . .
Schoolfield, yeah. And the Chattanooga press had just given him a free ride. And he was bad news in many areas outside of the Teamsters. But there were a couple of Teamsters cases that really put the finger on him. I went down there and talked to some of the people on the Chattanooga Times. The reporter said, "We know it, you know, but . . . " They were very sensitive about being, "New York-Jew owned," which was what Schoolfield would say about them, openly. And they never really took him on. So, I did from up here. Then, in '57, I went up to a seminar of the American Press Institute. By this time, I was beginning to get known pretty well around as an investigative reporter. I had done this thing with the blacks down there in Camdem. I had done a good job in Texas. I had found a man in Texas who had been gone from Nashville twenty-two years. It was a big story. I was into this Teamsters thing. Around '57, it began to get around that I was pretty good at it. And the American Press Institute began to ask me to come up and lecture. I ran into Clark Mollenhoff while I was up there and I said, "You know, I've got a terrible thing down in Tennessee." And he said, "Well, why don't you talk to Kennedy about it. He's in town." It seems to me that this was April of '57. By this time, I had been at it a year and I had a hell of a case. So, Clark called Kennedy in the Foley Square courthouse in New York. He, by this time, was just getting into Dave Beck. He had had one series of Beck hearings and they were about to go into Scranton, Pennsylvania. And the third hearing that they were going into was the garbage thing, the Squillante involvement in the New York garbage racket. So, he was in Foley Square working on the garbage thing and Mollenhoff called him and said, "There is a guy down in Tennessee that has got a hell of a case. I've been over it with him and you ought to talk to him." So, he arranged for to go in at around three o'clock that afternoon. I get there at a quarter to three, and Bob Kennedy is there with his overcoat on. And he is acting like I am an hour late, which I know that I'm not. But he said, "I'd like for you to meet my administrative assistant, Mr. Adlerman." He introduced me to him and left. I didn't like that very much. So, I sat down with Adlerman and gave him the whole background. He was very interested and said, "Now, could you write a memo on it all?" I said, "Sure, I'll write you a memorandum. In fact, I'm going to be in New York for about a week and I'll just stop by Washington on my way back to Tennessee." So, I prepare the memo. I'm going back through Washington and I get off the airplane and go into the Senate Office Building. I figured, "Well, I'll go see Kennedy and give it to him." So, I go in and get the same sort of cold shoulder, "See Mr. Adlerman." I thought, "That rich little snob." I really didn't like him. He said, "Oh, yes. We are very interested in that. Would you see Mr. Adlerman?" So, I see Adlerman and I gave the memo to him. By this time, there had been a few other developments while I had been away. So, this went on literally for months, you know. There would be a new case of violence, I would add to the memo. I couldn't get them to pay any attention. And I despised him. I couldn't get him on the phone, he wouldn't talk to me about it. He was always interested in something else. I didn't like him. He would refer me to Jerry Adlerman. And one day, (Note: portions of the original transcript have been deleted in retyping) he called me on the telephone down here and said, "Look, I'm sending two investigators down there. I've been over this case over the weekend and I think that it's awfully good and I would like to come down there and we are going to get into that." I said, "Great." And he sent two investigators down that week and that's how I got into it.