Statement from Children's Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman on the passing of John Seigenthaler

Jul 11, 2014, 17:50 ET from Children's Defense Fund

WASHINGTON, July 11, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- A great American died today. John Seigenthaler was a wonderful friend, an extraordinary journalist, and a long term champion for justice and freedom. He leaves wells of justice and service in his wake that all in America will benefit from for decades to come.

As a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy he served as an intermediary between the federal government, Civil Rights Movement leaders, and White segregationist Southern state officials, moving between the world he came from in his native Nashville and the better America he was helping to create: "I grew up in the South, the child of good and decent parents . . . I don't know where my head or heart was, or my parents' heads and hearts, or my teachers'. I never heard it once from the pulpit. We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid of change."

He was in Montgomery, Alabama to try to protect Freedom Riders during the May 1961 riot at the city's Greyhound bus station, where he was hit in the head with a lead pipe, kicked after he fell to the ground, and left unconscious in the street for nearly a half hour after he tried to help two women Freedom Riders take shelter in his car. He later said that episode changed Robert Kennedy's understanding of what they were dealing with in the South: "I think everything he thought the administration of justice and law enforcement was supposed to be about had been violated."

The experience only strengthened John's own commitment to justice. As editor, publisher, and CEO of The Tennessean, founding editorial director of USA Today, and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University he was renowned as an outspoken champion of First Amendment rights and free speech. He never stopped believing that America could be better and live up to its promises for all.

I was privileged to serve on the John F. Kennedy: Profiles in Courage Committee while John served as its chair for a number of years. His courageous trailblazing life deserves its own special Profile in Courage award.  I will miss him and his generous spirit.

For more information contact:
Patti Hassler, Vice President of Communications and Outreach
202-662-3554 (office)

SOURCE Children's Defense Fund