Katzenbach civil rights legacy lives on today
By Amy Schapiro
Tuesday night, this country lost one of its national heroes. For those who grew up in the ‘60s, Nicholas Katzenbach, who was 90, was a household name. For today’s generation, it is a forgotten name. Yet the lives we lead today would be drastically different if it weren’t for the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill of 1965. Katzenbach was one of the key architects behind that legislation and more.
In some sense, it is ironic that on the day it was learned that an unsung hero of the civil rights movement died, the president of the United States, the first African-American, advocated his support for same-sex marriage — the next battleground for equality.
As Robert Kennedy’s deputy attorney general, it was Katzenbach whom the Kennedy administration relied on to craft legislation and quell crisis after crisis. Katzenbach was the ranking government official dispatched to represent the attorney general, and the president, when James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi.
The following year, it was Katzenbach who was sent to another college campus to enforce the integration of the University of Alabama by two African-American students, James Hood and Vivian Malone (who would later become the sister-in-law of current Attorney General Eric Holder).
Reflections by Holder
The impressions that Katzenbach made on a 12-year-old Holder were everlasting. “When I became deputy in 1997, Nick Katzenbach was a person who by then, I never met, but whom I knew from history,” Holder told me during an interview last year. “One of the things I always do as I take these jobs is try to think about who my predecessors are and what they do well. … As I thought about what I wanted to do as deputy, I wanted to be a force beyond simply making sure that the ship was running on time, and I took that from the experience of having seen (Katzenbach) playing such a pivotal role in a historical event.”
The photo of that historic confrontation — between a short and stocky segregationist governor, George Wallace, and a tall balding government official, Katzenbach, has become an iconic image of the struggle for civil rights. On that hot June day in 1963, Wallace planned to seize the opportunity to highlight himself and his cause. But what he didn’t expect was to be upstaged by a 6’2 man who called it like he saw it — “a show.”
Katzenbach always called it like he saw it. He didn’t mince words; he was a straight shooter, and he accomplished something few others can say. He was the rare individual who was trusted by rivals Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He was part of Bobby Kennedy’s inner circle, and later succeeded Kennedy as LBJ’s attorney general. For Johnson to appoint a Kennedy man in the position spoke volumes about Katzenbach. Katzenbach was his own man, guided by the principles of the U.S. Constitution. In recent years, he was beside himself over the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even in his later years, he never lost his love of the law.
His father’s footsteps
In pursuing the law he emulated his father, who was the state attorney general of New Jersey and died when Katzenbach was just 12 years old.
Katzenbach endured his own struggle for freedom when he was shot down in a B-25 over the Mediterranean and spent 27 months as a POW during World War II. While he was stymied by the confines of prison, he maximized his time by reading hundreds of books, including legal tomes, so he could return to the U.S. and earn his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer. He accomplished both.
When Katzenbach wanted to work for the Kennedy administration, he turned to Yale Law School classmate Byron White. Katzenbach’s eyes were set not on the Department of Justice, but rather the State Department. Ironically, that is where Katzenbach ended his government career. In what was considered a surprise move by President Johnson, Katzenbach went from being attorney general to under secretary of State under Dean Rusk. With the passage of the civil rights legislation, Katzenbach was ready to take on a new challenge, the Vietnam War. He was a dove among hawks and groomed many future statesmen such as Richard Holbrooke, Anthony Lake and Lawrence Eagleburger, who all worked for him.
I recently asked Katzenbach about the stalemate in Congress due to unwillingness to compromise. He replied, “Compromise assumes, I think, a certain rationality and a willingness to postpone, not necessarily give up. I never tried to convince the Southerners to stop discriminating and vote for civil rights. But with everyone, I was willing to explain why we wanted a provision and what we thought it would accomplish.”
He did the same when a proposal or amendment wasn’t favored. As he said, “These discussions often exposed a misunderstanding that could be cured. Our language could be interpreted in ways we did not intend.”
This nation will certainly miss public servants like Katzenbach who valued the art of understanding and compromise.
Amy Schapiro is author of the forthcoming biography Leading Justice: The Life of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach, which will be published next year.