Seigenthaler: Liberty defines us

Seigenthaler: Liberty defines us
You would expect a respected newsman like John Seigenthaler to spend an evening with participants in the sixth annual American Indian Journalism Institute in Vermillion speaking about press freedom.

The liberties that allow written and broadcast information to flow freely in the United States, however, was just one of a myriad of topics he discussed Friday night at the Al Neuharth Media Center.

The freedoms we all enjoy because of the First Amendment, he noted, are easy to take for granted by journalists and others who greatly rely on them.


But this nation is constantly changing, Seigenthaler said, making the protections drafted two centuries ago in the First Amendment vital to modern American society.

One of the reforms that a lively media helped bring about occurred less than a century ago, he told a banquet audience of young women and men enrolled in this year's institute.

"What has the first amendment done to make us a better country in the 20th century? That's a legitimate question," Seigenthaler said.

Seigenthaler spent four decades as reporter, editor and eventually publisher and CEO of the Tennessean in Nashville, TN.

In 1982, he became a founding editorial director of USA TODAY.

The 79-year-old journalist noted that just a few years before he was born, Woodrow Wilson's term as president was coming to end, and the nation was approaching World War I.

"There was a hot election coming up, one that every citizen would want to participate in. But about half of you couldn't vote," Seigenthaler said, scanning his audience of young journalists. "You're women. One-hundred-forty-five years after we won the Revolution, our independence, our liberty � half of our population couldn't vote."

The election was an important milestone in American history, coming just before the nation entered into World War I.

Women had begun a suffrage movement, hoping to gain the right to vote. But they decided to cease their push for voting reforms after the nation became involved in World War I, fearing it would jeopardize liberty.

Alice Paul, however, formed the National Suffrage Party, to continue the fight to earn women the right to vote.

"The new political party marched 8,000 people down the streets of Pennsylvania Avenue on the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated, and they continued to picket the White House every day," he said. "They put 800,000 petitions in hands of members of Congress."

And they suffered. They were beaten, knocked down, spat upon, arrested and imprisoned, Seigenthaler said.

A free press reported those abuses, he said. "Finally, the conscience of the country was pricked in 1920, and finally we got a Constitutional convention and an amendment giving women the right to vote."

Seigenthaler believes that action helped the population of the United States grow into a more caring society.

And eventually, images on television and on the front pages of newspapers showing colored people suffering as they demonstrated for civil rights legislation beginning in the 1950s helped change our nation once again for the better.

"Finally, finally, in 1965, after all of the suffering and the deaths, the people who exercised their rights eventually were able to convince a Congress to pass Lyndon Johnson's three civil rights bills in 1965.

"I submit to you that we are a better society for it," he said.

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