The coincidence that the 2014 Excellence in Journalism Convention in Nashville convened shortly after the death of John Seigenthaler, the Nashville-born publisher of the Tennessean, administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and lifelong defender of the First Amendment is, well, uncanny.
Or maybe it’s just serendipitous, said Freedom Sings’ frontwoman Jonell Mosser, a singer in a band formed to educate young audiences about the importance of the First Amendment.
“It’s exactly the right thing,” said Mosser.
The convention officially began with a memorial held for Seigenthaler, who died in July at the age of 86. Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center who worked with Seigenthaler at the Freedom Forum, led the memorial.
“His reputation wasn’t even as great as he was in person,” said Paulson.
Paulson highlighted a handful of Seigenthaler’s many efforts to lend important news coverage of civil rights issues. From being hit unconscious with a pipe during a civil rights riot in Montgomery to negotiating the safety of the Freedom Riders with then governor of Alabama, John Malcolm Patterson, Seigenthaler stood for equal rights for all. A short video accompanied Paulson’s heartfelt speech.
Within the same motif of serendipity, about 100 attendees ranging from those who had a close relationship with Seigenthaler to those who had a brief acquaintance with him gathered to emote their favorite memories of the Nashville icon.
“With just a few notes on a napkin, he could give you a wonderful 30-minute speech of the freedom of the press,” said Al Cross, Director of Institute for Rural Journalism and Communication Issues at the University of Kentucky. “Journalism was in his DNA, and that meant that open government was in his DNA, too.”
Despite climbing to the ladder of success from head of the newsroom to top of the U.S. government, equality played a big role in Seigenthaler’s values.
“He was still an essence,” said Pat Embry, Director of the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. “He was a Nashvillian. He treated everyone the same way, from the doorman of Opryland to the president of the United States.”
Paulson, concluding the memorial, shared his favorite memory from working alongside Seigenthaler.
Seigenthaler would address classes of Chips Quinn Scholars, a minority journalism program founded by John C. Quinn, Sr., at the Freedom Forum at Vanderbilt University, twice a year about the importance of the First Amendment. Paulson would often accompany Seigenthaler at these presentations.
“He would close his presentation with, ‘I’ve devoted my whole life to defending the First Amendment, and now it’s your turn,” Paulson recounted.
“He would look out to a room full of 18- and 19-year-olds and say, ‘I don’t have a lot of time left’ and these kids who’ve never had a thought about constitutional law would look up with tears in their eyes,” Paulson said. “And I would have tears in my eyes, too.”
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