John Seigenthaler Papers

Identifier: MSS.0829

  • Staff Only

Scope and Contents Note

This collection documents the life and work of John L. Seigenthaler: prominent figure in Tennessee social and political history, longtime editor and publisher of The Tennessean newspaper, and lifelong First Amendment activist. The bulk of the collection dates from 1962, when Seigenthaler became editor for The Tennessean, to his death in 2014. Researchers will note a marked shift in the types of documents produced (and their arrangement) upon the retirement of Seigenthaler from The Tennessean in 1991 and the founding of the First Amendment Center.

The Correspondence series consists of incoming and outgoing correspondence. A majority of this is correspondence received by Seigenthaler from individuals and organizations. Correspondence was not separated in any consistent manner between incoming and outgoing, and the original filing structure was kept intact where possible. The following subseries were created to assist the researcher: - Alphabetical - Invitations - Organizations - Persons - Topical

For more detailed descriptions, see the Correspondence series notes. The majority of the correspondence consists of personal communication, but work letters were often intermingled. The filing system for correspondence, as with other files in the collection, was uneven until the later 1970s when a more rigid organization-by-letter system was used. There is some indication that early correspondence may have been thrown out to make room for more “current” files.

The Tennessean series is a large series that consists of material related to Seigenthaler’s work at The Tennessean newspaper. Seigenthaler began his career at The Tennessean as a reporter in 1949, became editor in 1962, and was promoted to publisher in 1973. Seigenthaler retired from his active role at The Tennessean in 1991 but maintained close ties to the newspaper.

The bulk of The Tennessean series dates from the late 1970s to the 1980s and mostly deals with running the large operation of a statewide newspaper. One interesting set of material is Seigenthaler’s Call Logs and Appointment books, beginning in 1963 and running all the way to 1990 with only a one month gap. Another large series contains material related to Jacque Srouji, a reporter at The Tennessean who was simultaneously working with the FBI. There are also large series related to Personnel, Stories and Research, and Features.

The USA Today series is a small series related to Seigenthaler’s association with USA Today after he helped found it in 1982, becoming its first editorial director. There are some materials related to the 2004 internal investigation into Jack Kelley, and these materials may not be used until 2040.

The Gannett series contains material related to Gannett Corporation, which purchased The Tennessean in the 1970s. Gannett also owns USA Today among many other properties.

The Freedom Forum series contains material related to the Freedom Forum nonprofit organization, founded in 1991 from the Gannett Foundation. The Freedom Forum runs the Newseum and the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. A large portion of this series relates to the Board of Trustees of the Freedom Forum and the Forum’s various foreign Media Forums.

The First Amendment Center series relates to the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, owned and operated by the Freedom Forum. When material related to both the First Amendment Center and the Freedom Forum, the archivist defaulted to placing the materials with the First Amendment Center series. Of particular note are the materials related to the Advisory Board, events hosted by the First Amendment Center, and the Visiting Scholars program.

The Topical series consists of many different kinds of files, mostly related to individuals and organizations. When the archivist was unsure where to place a file, they often ended up in Topical. Topical files were not always maintained in consistent ways, but the original filing structure was kept intact where possible. The following subseries were created to assist the researcher: - Alphabetical - Organizations - Persons - Jimmy Hoffa - A Word on Words

Materials related to Jimmy Hoffa and the “A Word on Words” program were separated due to their importance in Seigenthaler’s career. The filing system for topical files, as with other files in the collection, was uneven until the later 1970s when a more rigid organization-by-letter system was used.

The Robert F. Kennedy & Department of Justice series contains materials related to Seigenthaler’s work as Administrative Assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy from 1961-1962, as well as general material related to RFK. Seigenthaler maintained a close relationship with Robert Kennedy and the rest of the Kennedy family his entire life. These materials were separated from the larger collection due to their importance and restricted nature. These materials may not be used until 2040 without permission from the Seigenthaler family.

The Personal series contains materials that do not belong in those series documenting Seigenthaler’s long professional career. These items document many aspects of Seigenthaler’s life outside of work. Large subseries in this series include calendars and call logs, events attended by Seigenthaler, materials related to his Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, and the Wikipedia controversy involving Seigenthaler.

The Speeches series has one of the deepest descriptions of the collection and documents all the speeches given by Seigenthaler – and the research to create them – from the 1940s until 2014. They are arranged in chronological order. Where possible, a title, speech location, and date were given.

The Writings series contains all kinds of published and unpublished material written by Seigenthaler. Seigenthaler worked on a number of books during his career, including one about the trial of Jimmy Hoffa, an unpublished book on Robert F. Kennedy, an unpublished biography of Alice Paul, and a biography about James K. Polk. Writings related to Alice Paul, John Peter Zenger, and Robert F. Kennedy may not be used until 2040 without permission from the Seigenthaler family.

The Clippings series is a small series the contains news clippings and articles about Seigenthaler, articles that mention Seigenthaler, and articles that were written by Seigenthaler. There are some other folders of unrelated clippings. This series is not an exhaustive account of all articles, but rather a collection of articles separated or easily separated while processing.

The Dolores Watson Seigenthaler series contains material related to Seigenthaler’s wife, Dolores. Before marrying Seigenthaler, Dolores was a popular singer in Nashville, and much of the material relates to her singing career. There are also some yearbooks from Rome, Georgia, where Dolores grew up.

The Photographs series contains the many photographs taken of Seigenthaler throughout his career. Photographs were encountered all over the collection but were almost always moved to this series. Context for photographs is provided at the folder level where possible, but photographs for that subject are not always only contained in that folder. Many of the photographs include staged photographs and pictures of Seigenthaler at various events.

The Oversize series contains material from all over the collection that did not fit into standard archival boxes. Many of these materials were previously framed but were removed for preservation purposes. This series also contains some original newspaper articles that are duplicated in the Clippings series.

The Realia and Memorabilia series contains 3d objects that were important to Seigenthaler. He was given many plaques and awards throughout his career, but only a representative sample was saved.

The Audiovisual series contains VHS tapes, DVDs, Audio cassettes, and other ausiovisual materials. This collection has been roughly organized and inventoried. For further assistance or information, please contact an archivist.


  • 1920 - 2014

Conditions Governing Access

This collection may be viewed only in the reading room of Special Collections in the Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Collections should be requested 2-3 days prior to visiting in order to facilitate easier access. For questions or to request a collection, contact

Restrictions to Access

This collection contains restricted materials. Contact an archivist for specific inquiries about materials related to: - the Kennedy family - the Jack Kelley investigation at USA Today - Alice Paul - John Peter Zenger - the Robert F. Kennedy book

Biographical Note - John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler was a prominent figure in Tennessee social and political history, served as longtime editor (1962-1991) and publisher (1973-1991) of The Tennessean newspaper, and was a lifelong First Amendment activist. He was also an Administrative Assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy from 1961-1962 and remained a close friend of the Kennedy family years later. Seigenthaler was heavily involved in the creation of USA Today, served as a board member at the Freedom Forum, and founded the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

John Lawrence Seigenthaler, Jr. was born on July 27, 1927 in Nashville, Tennessee to John Lawrence Seigenthaler, Sr. and Mary Agnes Brew Seigenthaler. He was the oldest of eight siblings, which included brothers Thomas P., William Robert, and Cornelius B. Seigenthaler and sisters Mary Ann Seigenthaler Murphy, Evalyne Seigenthaler Pace, Alice Seigenthaler Valiquette, and Joan Seigenthaler Miller. John Seigenthaler had a religious Catholic upbringing and graduated from Father Ryan High School in Nashville in 1945. For three years after high school, he served as a control tower operator in the U.S. Air Force (1946-1949).

After leaving the Air Force, Seigenthaler was hired as a reporter by The Nashville Tennessean on April 19, 1949 where his Uncle Walter worked as circulation director. Working as a reporter in June 1953, Seigenthaler met big band singer Dolores Watson while covering a concert at which she was performing. The two would later marry on January 3, 1955 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Their only child, John Michael Seigenthaler, was born later that year on December 21, 1955. Dolores retired from her singing career after his birth.

John Seigenthaler first gained national prominence in November 1953 after tracking down disappeared businessman Thomas C. Buntin in Orange, Texas. Seigenthaler would again make national news the next year on October 5, 1954 when he saved a suicidal man from jumping off the Shelby Street Bridge. This bridge was later renamed the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge on April 29, 2014. Seigenthaler took a leave of absence from The Tennessean to complete a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University from September 1958 to May 1959. He was given further leaves of absence of various lengths from the newspaper from 1959 to March 21, 1962 to work for Robert F. Kennedy.

Seigenthaler served as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy from 1961 to March 1962, first coming to the attention of Kennedy after publishing a series of articles on the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa in 1957 and 1958. This role brought Seigenthaler to the front lines of many pivotal moments, most notably the Freedom Rides in May 1961, where he was knocked unconscious during the riots. Seigenthaler would remain a close friend of Robert and Ethel Kennedy and the Kennedy family even after Robert’s death in 1968.

Seigenthaler returned to a different Tennessean newsroom than when he left; Tennessean publisher Silliman Evans, Jr. died in 1961 and was replaced by his brother Amon Carter Evans as publisher on March 20, 1962. One of Amon’s first acts as publisher was to bring Seigenthaler back to the paper as editor on March 21, 1962. Under the leadership of Evans and Seigenthaler in the 1960s and 1970s, The Tennessean flourished, pursuing an agenda centered on “enriching the quality of life for the Midstate region.”

In 1982, Seigenthaler was named the first editorial director of USA Today. During the 1980s, he maintained an active role in the management of The Tennessean, splitting time between the two papers. Seigenthaler retired from his position at USA Today in mid 1991 and his active position at The Tennessean a few months later in December 1991. He maintained a strong connection to the paper even after retirement and was a close personal friend of Frank Sutherland who replaced him as editor.

That same year on December 15, 1991, Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. The Center is operated as a program of the Freedom Forum Institute and is dedicated to “providing resources to help the public understand how their First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition work, and how they can be protected,” as stated on its website. Seigenthaler was heavily involved in the Center from its founding until his death. In 2002, the Vanderbilt Board of Trustees named the building complex that houses the First Amendment Center and Diversity Institute for John Seigenthaler.

Seigenthaler was involved in a number of nonprofit and civic organizations throughout his life, but especially after his retirement in 1991. He served as chairman of the Profiles in Courage award for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and co-chaired the annual Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards. He served on the National Commission on Election Reform (2001-2005), the Commission of 12 in Nashville (1997-1998), and the Commission on the Future of the Tennessee Judicial System (1992-1997). He was a member of the Nashville Rotary Club, the Richland Country Club, and numerous Catholic organizations.

Seigenthaler published three books and worked on many others to various levels of completion, including unfinished novels on Robert F. Kennedy and suffragist Alice Paul. His published books include A Search for Justice (1971), The Year of the Scandal Called Watergate (1974), and James K. Polk: 1845–1849: The American Presidents Series (2004).

Starting in 1971, Seigenthaler hosted the long-running A Word on Words program on Nashville Public Television until 2013. On this program, Seigenthaler interviewed authors and engaged in interesting discussions about literature.

John Seigenthaler died on July 11, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee.


200 Linear Feet (406 Hollinger boxes, 2 tall Hollinger boxes, 13 oversize flat boxes, approximately 2850 audiovisual items)

Language of Materials



This collection contains the papers of John Seigenthaler, journalist, writer, and longtime editor of The Tennessean. Seigenthaler was a prominent advocate for First Amendment rights and founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. Seigenthaler also worked for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and was a longtime friend of the Kennedy family.

Physical Location

Offsite Storage, Special Collections & Archives

Immediate Source of Acquisition

This collection was donated to Vanderbilt University in December 2015 through an agreement with the Seigenthaler family.

Finding Aid for the John Seigenthaler Papers
Zach Johnson
January 2020
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository

Special Collections Library
1101 19th Ave. S.
Nashville TN 37212 United States


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