In My Opinion

Pitts Jr.: Seigenthaler was a southerner who made a difference

 
 
 <span class="cutline_leadin">OVERCOMING RACISM:</span> The late John Seigenthaler edited The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville and worked for civil rights during the Kennedy administration.
OVERCOMING RACISM: The late John Seigenthaler edited The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville and worked for civil rights during the Kennedy administration.
Mark Humphrey / AP

lpitts@MiamiHerald.com

Here we go again. Same stuff, different day. Déjà vu all over again.

A monthly New York newspaper, The WestView News, uses an objectionable headline (“The N----r In The White House”) on a piece in its July edition which argues that much of the shrill hatred toward President Obama is rooted in racism. Not surprisingly, the headline gets more attention than the argument.

Then on Sunday, Attorney General Eric Holder again blames “racial animus” for some of the more strident opposition to the president. “Not true,” says Rush Limbaugh. Not a “constructive statement,” says Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Because apparently they believe that when a president’s mere election or reelection stirs the opposition to demand impeachment, secession and revolution, or to scream, “I want my country back!” or to call that president a boy, an ape or a subhuman mongrel, or to refuse to accept an ordinary birth certificate as proof of citizenship, that has absolutely nothing to do with race. Happened to Ronald Reagan all the time, right?

Sigh.

There is, by now, something depressingly rote about this dance of accusation and denial. I might not have even bothered writing about it, except that John Seigenthaler died of cancer last week and that seems to demand it. His 86 years stand as proof that we are capable of better and that, while some of us refuse to see what others of us find glaring, none of us is doomed to denial. Blindness is a choice.

That Seigenthaler made a different choice is evident in the arc of his career — Robert Kennedy’s emissary to the South at the height of the Freedom Rides; knocked senseless by KKK thugs when he tried to rescue two black women during a Klan riot; reporter and editor for the Tennessean newspaper in his native Nashville who championed racial equality at a time when it was dangerous for a white man to do so; journalistic icon who brought reporters of color into a monochromatic newsroom.

The thing to understand is that none of that moral heroism was predictable or preordained. After all, he grew up as a white child of white privilege in the segregated South. Yet, somehow, Seigenthaler was able to make himself see what people around him could not.

For decades after, he wondered why he didn’t do so sooner.

As he movingly explained in the 2011 PBS documentary Freedom Riders, “I grew up in the South, child of good and decent parents. We had (black) women who worked in our household, sometimes surrogate mothers. They were invisible women to me. I can’t believe I couldn’t see them. I don’t know where my head or heart was. I don’t know where my parents’ heads and hearts were or my teachers’. I never heard it once from the pulpit. We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid, I guess, of change.”

How he overcame that defect, I have no idea. But that he did suggests others can, too. And that makes his legacy one of hope.

That hope is sorely needed. Not just because of the way we regard a president, but also and more important, because of the way we regard a woman applying for work, a man boarding an elevator, a boy in a hoodie, people just trying to live lives.

When the history of this era is written, it will recount how so-called conservatives gave aid, comfort and intellectual cover to the ugliest of human impulses under the guise of political debate.

People will wonder how we could have seen all that ugliness without seeing a thing, how journalists could have been silent and supine to the point of malpractice in the face of such obvious and monumental misbehavior.

It’s a certainty that makes John Seigenthaler’s life seem all the more singular. Yes, that life proves blindness is a choice.

But it proves vision is, too.

Read more Leonard Pitts Jr. stories from the Miami Herald

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