John Seigenthaler in “Eyes on the Prize”
John Seigenthaler, a writer and long-time editor of The Tennessean has died at age 86. Seigenthaler was interviewed for Henry Hampton’s series Eyes on the Prize, and his filmed interview has been preserved by the Film & Media Archive as part of the ongoing Mellon Project. His interview, available to read online, was featured in the episode Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961), where he spoke about confronting an angry mob during the Freedom Rides.
After working as a reporter and assistant city editor at The Tennessean for many years, he left the paper in 1960 to work as an administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy who was the Attorney General at that time. This position placed him in the middle of one of the most violent chapters of the civil rights movement. The Freedom Rides in 1961 were a campaign to challenge the non-enforcement of the Supreme Court decisions that said segregation on public transportation was illegal. Seigenthaler, along with Assistant Attorney General, John Doar, were sent to negotiate with Alabama Governor John Malcolm Patterson. Days went by without a meeting and the situation continued to escalate.
In his interview, Seigenthaler describes meeting with Governor Patterson,
Finally, Gov. Patterson did agree to a meeting and I went down from Birmingham to Montgomery to meet with him, went into that antebellum building that is the State Capitol there. He had me into his office, had his whole cabinet seated around this great conference table. Commissioner of Safety was a man named Floyd Mann, he was a bright, articulate, tough-minded police officer, and Gov. Patterson lectured me for the better part of half an hour at times pounding the table telling me how these outside agitators had to get out of that state. That this state was not about to permit the Federal establishment to move in and to assert the rights of those people. That this was an Alabama matter. That I, in fact, was an intruder
Patterson did agree to provide protection for Doar and Seigenthaler and the Freedom Riders on their way to Montgomery, but on the morning of May 20, 1961, the Alabama State Highway Patrol abandoned the Riders at the Montgomery city limits. The group was set upon by a mob, described in vivid detail in Blackside’s interview with Frederick Leonard, and in his interview, Seigenthaler described what happened to him in Montgomery.
We arrived at the Federal Building which adjoins the bus station about 2 or 3 minutes after the bus arrived. As John got out of the car, you could hear the shouts from across the way, the screams. I looked across the way and baggage was being hurled into the air, above the bus station shed. Doar ran for the Federal Building and I drove up the street and quickly through an alleyway on the backside of the bus station and as I came down the far side, I saw this almost anthill of activity. The Freedom Riders on–emerging from the bus were attacked, were being mauled. It looked like 2, 300 people just all over them. There were screams, shouts. As I drove along, I saw two young women who were Freedom Riders being pummeled to one side. There was a woman who was walking behind one of these young women. She had a purse on a strap and she was beating her over the head and a young skinny blonde teenager in a t-shirt was sort of dancing her backward in front of her punching her in the face. Instinctively, I just bumped up onto the sidewalk, blew the horn, jumped out of the car, came around, grabbed the one who was being hit, took her back to the car. The other young woman got into the back seat of the car and I opened the door, pushed this young woman, whose name I think was Susan Wilbur, and said “Get in the car.” And she said, “Mister, this is not your fight, I’m non violent, don’t get hurt because of me.” I almost got away with it. If she had gotten into the car, I think I could have gotten away, but that moment of hesitation gave the mob a chance to collect their wits and one grabbed me by the arm, wheeled me around and said, “What the hell are you doing?” And I said, “Get back, I’m a Federal man.” Turned back to her and the lights went out–I was hit with a pipe over this ear and literally don’t remember anything that happened. They kicked me up under the car. I woke up half hour later. I was wearing John Doar’s shirt–I’d been on the road a long time and I had borrowed his shirt from him. I remember waking up…the shirt was drenched with blood and my first thought was, poor John, I’ve ruined his shirt. The officer who was beside me was a lieutenant. He had my notebook which had all sorts of phone numbers in it, like Fred Shuttlesworth, the black leader, Bull Connor, the White House, the Justice Department, John Patterson and he told me, he said “Well, you’ve had some trouble, Buddy, is there anybody I can call for you?” And I said, I had enough wits about me to say, “Yes, if you would call Mr. Kennedy.” Kennedy would that be? And I said, “Either the President, or the Attorney General” and he said “Who the hell are you, Buddy?” And I said, “Well, I’m the Attorney General’s Administrative Assistant.” He said, “We’ve got to get you to a hospital.”
Later on, when he had recovered from his skull fracture he ran across the FBI memo, as an assistant to Kennedy, which identified his attackers,
I found on the first day a memorandum from J. Edgar Hoover to the Attorney General. He had read it and placed it on my desk, and it identified the thugs who had beaten me, by name, said that sources close to the violence had identified these people by name. I’ve kept that memorandum, and I haven’t read it in a long time, but I’d like for my children and grandchildren to take it out occasionally and read it. It might help them understand just how the South was. But also, how the FBI was.
–All quotes from Interview with John Seigenthaler, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 3, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Seigenthaler eventually left his position in the Kennedy administration and returned to The Tennessean as the editor in 1962. The paper covered issues of segregation including sit-ins and protests, which were ignored or not covered by other papers in the South. He also assigned a reporter, Jerry Thompson, to go undercover as a Klan member, and then published the stories as a series in The Tennessean. Seigenthaler continued to be active after his retirement from the paper in 1991.