Kentucky Voices

Ky. voices: Hero made newspapers matter

July 20, 2014 

A thousand persons crowded the Catholic cathedral in Nashville last week for the funeral of journalist John Seigenthaler, one of the South's last surviving white heroes of the civil rights era.

Among the mourners were three generations of the Robert Kennedy family, former Vice President Al Gore and a bipartisan collection of other politicians who could only wish they had the unrivaled power that Seigenthaler wielded from his newspaper office in Nashville in a half century as reporter, editor and publisher.

Near his casket, covered with a blanket on which were inscribed the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Emmylou Harris sang the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome and a choir responded with the old hymn, This Little Light of Mine.

Over the weekend, national accounts of Seigenthaler's death from cancer at 86 retold how, as Robert Kennedy's emissary to the South during the freedom rides, he was knocked senseless while he tried to protect two black women in a bus station riot and how his paper in Nashville, The Tennessean, championed racial equality when many other southern papers did not.

Viewers of the 2011 PBS documentary Freedom Riders will recall Seigenthaler's impassioned description of the freedom riders and young students who marched from Nashville's historically black colleges in a nonviolent protest that ended segregation in its restaurants and stores.

What Kentuckians should also know is The Tennessean's interest in promoting progressive causes in its market area, including wide swaths of Kentucky where I edited weekly papers in John's glory days.

We shared a mentor in an older reporter, the incredibly opinionated Nat Caldwell who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing how the United Mine Workers union helped finance industrialist Cyrus Eaton's purchase of coalfields in Western Kentucky in a sweetheart deal that squeezed out competing smaller mines that were non-union.

Nat was the first reporter I ever met — when I was a teenage country correspondent for The Tennessean, living on a farm in Hendersonville. Twenty-five years later, he showed up in Kentucky at my newspaper office in Russellville.

He announced that Seigenthaler, by then his editor, had assigned him to travel the region wherever Tennesseans were sold and write stories boosting the economy.

Ten years later, after praising Gov. Wendell Ford's investments in coal research at the University of Kentucky, Nat nudged me to sponsor a "Goals for Coal" rally at Russellville.

I did, and Nat's reporting for Seigenthaler pumped up a crowd from all over the mid-South that filled the high school in a county in which not a chunk of coal was ever mined.

That initiative was typical of Seigenthaler, a liberal journalist with an attitude, always engaged in the big stories that he covered, from the time as a cub reporter he saved a man from jumping off a bridge to the day when he was editor and urged young Al Gore, then himself a cub reporter, to run for Congress.

In the 1980s when I bought the weekly Sentinel-Echo at London, I was impressed how many old-timers remembered the years when Nat Caldwell traveled up and down the Cumberland River, boosting projects from Corbin to Trigg and Lyons counties where he inspired construction of a free-flowing canal connecting Barkley and Kentucky lakes.

Nat's boss, Seigenthaler, was like that — engaged at home and, as when he edited the opinion page of USA Today on a weekly commute, a long way from home. As University of Kentucky journalism professor Al Cross puts it, "The Tennessean punched above its weight, running a paper with wide shoulders to tote a heavy social agenda."

Of Seigenthaler, Bruce Dobie, editor of the weekly Scene in Nashville wrote, "He was of the old school partisan variety [but] he is why newspapers mattered. He is why newspapers might remind themselves that they matter still."

Veteran journalist Al Smith of Lexington is writing his third memoir about Kentucky.

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