The day started out at the Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt (beautiful campus, by the way), where John Seigenthaler himself talked to us.
He was the administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy Attorney General, and is famous for being hit over the head with a lead pipe while trying to save a Freedom Bus Rider when they were attacked in Montgomery. A federal official lying in a pool of his own blood convinced the Kennedys that one could not simply reason with Southern politicians.
Mr. Seigenthaler is diamond-sharp at the age of 82. During his 2-hour lecture, I never once felt that he was lecturing–such affable was his manner, so engaging were his stories. A highly accomplished journalist, he speaks in effortless metaphors (“The South’s backbone was a bar of steel. It would not break, and we didn’t know if we could apply enough heat for it to bend”).
Also, Mr. Seigenthaler has an surprisingly irreverent sense of humor. (When asked about his personal impression of J. Edgar Hoover, he replied “We have this term in the South you probably never heard; it’s called asshole.”)
Name-dropping like it was nobody’s business (“just the other night, Vice President Gore called me to talk about an article he was writing for the Rolling Stones”), he regaled us with first-person accounts of the Bus Rider crises and insider tales of the intimate relationship between Robert and John F. Kennedy.
Over the last few days, I’ve developed a crush on RFK–the honest, well-meaning man that he was–and I could see the hurt of his loss, with which I have only recently become acquainted, still alive in Mr. Seigenthaler.
He closed with a story about describing his involvement in the movement in the Civil Rights Movement to his five-year-old grandson, who asked “Grandpa, are you black?” Mr. Seigenthaler told his grandson “it doesn’t matter” and kissed him goodnight, but then wrote a letter about how unfortunately, race still matters today, and perhaps the child will grow up to see the day when it does not.
I heard sniffles in the back, and discovered that tears were rolling down my cheeks as well, more for the lost innocence of childhood than anything else.