On May 20, 1961, John Seigenthaler was attacked trying to rescue Freedom Riders during a riot in Alabama.
George Walker IV / The Tennessean
The Tennessean — led by a man once knocked unconscious by white separatists — took an activist role during and after the civil rights movement, a role that led to smoother racial integration in Nashville than in most other Southern cities, two former longtime newspaper staffers said.
“If it wasn’t for the newspaper, Nashville could’ve been a nasty, awful place,” said Dwight Lewis, a former columnist and editorial board member who started his 40-year career at The Tennessean in 1971.
John Seigenthaler, the paper’s late longtime editor and publisher, gave The Tennessean its progressive voice, said Lewis and former Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland.
Seigenthaler, who died in 2014 at age 86, left the newspaper for politics for a few years. He served as special assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy during the 1961 Freedom Rides, during which he was attacked in Alabama.
Seigenthaler returned to The Tennessean in 1962 with a mission to give a voice to Nashville’s blacks and civil rights.
“The newspaper led Nashville to more peacefully integrate than other Southern cities,” said Sutherland, who began his Tennessean career in 1963.
- Among the ways Seigenthaler informed and instigated:
- Sending Lewis, an African-American, to cover a Ku Klux Klan rally in Nashville in the ‘70s;
- Writing countless editorials supporting integration and civil rights;
- Ordering a series of stories on civil rights heroes in advance of the 1989 civil rights memorial in Montgomery, Ala.;
- Having writer Jerry Thompson infiltrate the Klan in 1980;
- Assigning reporters to cover Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations, NAACP conventions, Congressional Black Caucus dinners and other events that competing media gave little if any coverage;
- Initiating in-depth profiles of African-American community leaders;
- Editorializing in favor of busing for school integration in the early 1970s;
- Giving more and higher-profile coverage of Tennessee State University athletics in the sports pages.
Those moves often were met with resistance from some readers in Nashville.
“The responses varied from ‘Don’t make our community look bad’ to outright hatred,” Sutherland said.
Seigenthaler sometimes hired bodyguards for reporters and columnists who got threats because of what they wrote.
While the paper’s coverage angered some, others became more open-minded about civil rights, Lewis and Sutherland said. And that likely helped Nashville transition to full integration.
“Had this paper not been progressive, this city could’ve been a volatile place,” Lewis said. “A newspaper can take a stand and speak up and make a difference.”