NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The funeral of John Seigenthaler brought together the music and the moral strength of the civil rights movement Monday, sending off the legendary editor and publisher with a mix of protest songs, Catholic rituals and family stories.
Emmylou Harris sang We Shall Overcome and incense burned as more than 1,000 people, including the city's and state's political elite — and three generations of Massachusetts Kennedys — came together at Cathedral of the Incarnation here to mourn Seigenthaler's death and celebrate his life. The service paid tribute to Seigenthaler, who crusaded against the wrongs of the world not only as a reporter and editor but also as a top assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, founder of the First Amendment Center and a founder of USA TODAY.
Charles Strobel, a longtime friend who started the Room in the Inn homelessness ministry, said Seigenthaler's approach to injustice was clear and powerful.
"When you see it, how can you not respond?" Strobel said Seigenthaler would say.
Seigenthaler, 86, died Friday of cancer. His death inspired tributes from across the USA, reflecting his influence in journalism, civil rights, open government and other areas.
As a reporter for The Tennessean, Seigenthaler once saved a suicidal man's life on a bridge over the Cumberland River — a bridge eventually named after him. As the newspaper's editor, he led coverage of the civil rights movement when most Southern newspapers ignored the growing resistance to racial segregation in the South. As a Kennedy adviser in 1961, Seigenthaler was hit on the head with a lead pipe when a mob attacked a busload of Freedom Riders he was accompanying in Montgomery, Ala.
His service drew a who's who to the cathedral, including former Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat; Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Democratic Mayor Karl Dean; Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.; and Ethel Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy's widow. Her son, Joseph Kennedy II, and grandson, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., also attended.
But Strobel, the Rev. Joseph Breen and Seigenthaler's son and grandson were the ones who painted a picture of the Nashville native who was baptized and married in the same church.
Jack Seigenthaler, who will be a high school senior this fall, said it was strange to be telling stories about a man who so often told the stories. He said his grandfather brought history classes to life with his experiences and first-hand knowledge.
The Shakespeare buff still was reciting entire scenes from Hamlet a few weeks ago, his grandson said. And he left his grandson with indelible lessons about patriotism, courage and love.
"He was never arrogant, never haughty, and he listened ... indiscriminately," Jack Seigenthaler said.
John Michael Seigenthaler, a news anchor for Al Jazeera America, said his father would tell his brothers and sisters what was coming in the next day's newspaper after he got his first job at The Tennessean. He was a terrible driver and a very competitive person who constantly ran late.
And John Seigenthaler was a reader, the kind who marks the pages by underlining passages and making notes in the margins, leaving ink stains all around.
"Once we found an ink stain on my dog," John Michael Seigenthaler said.
While Seigenthaler's admirers and contemporaries packed the pews inside, Kate Fleming stood quietly on the sidewalk, holding the remains of an iced coffee from Starbucks. She had parked at the coffee house and walked down, watching the stream of mourners pass her by and hoping for a glimpse of the Kennedy family.
Fleming didn't know Seigenthaler personally. But as a longtime Nashvillian and Tennessean reader, she said she wanted to be there.
"I knew he was such a dominant character," she said. "I can't go inside. I'm not dressed for it. But I thought I'd stand here and pay my final respects."
As the sanctuary cleared, Dr. Charles Kimbrough, a veterinarian who served as president of Nashville's NAACP in the 1970s, slowly made his way up and down the pews, carefully placing his cane for each step. He said he wanted the extra newspaper special sections handed out at the event to give anyone in the NAACP who couldn't make it for the funeral.
Everyone knew that Seigenthaler stood for justice, Kimbrough said. So the biblical admonition read from the book of Micah worked perfectly: Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.
"He did not look to see color or class," Kimbrough said. "I was just happy to have known him."
Back outside on the sidewalk after the service, Gore recalled John Seigenthaler hiring him as a reporter for $95 a week in 1971. He didn't know the newspaper editor well before then. But he would get to know him so well that Seigenthaler would suggest that Gore follow his father into politics when a House seat came open five years later.
"We lost a giant," Gore said.
Live from John Seigenthaler's funeral
See tweets from Tennessean reporters at the funeral of former newspaper editor and publisher John Seigenthaler.