Nicholas Katzenbach, Unsung Hero of America's Desegregation

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The Civil Rights era attorney general died Tuesday night at the age of 90.

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Nicholas Katzenbach, second from the left, smiles as he watches the University of Alabama's first black students enter Foster Auditorium / The Library of Congress

When we think back upon the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s we usually think of the marches and the fire hoses, of Martin Luther King and Eugene "Bull" Connor, of Brown v. Board of Education and Southern judges and grandiloquent presidential proclamations. We seldom think about the dedicated and loyal men and women of the federal government who literally, often at great personal peril, enforced the new desegregation policies.

One of these brave public servants, a true American hero, was Nicholas Katzenbach, who died Tuesday night in New Jersey at the age of 90. The obituaries note that he served as the 65th attorney general of the United States, under President Lyndon Johnson, but even if Katzenbach had never worked a day in his life after 1965 his place in American history would have been secured. When it came to the ugliness of race in America, when it came to the battleground, he both talked the talk and walked the walk.

It was Nicolas Katzenbach, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's main man at the Justice Department, who bounded up the steps of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in June 1963 to face Governor George Wallace, the unrepentant segregationist, who had pledged to block the registration of two black students to the college. Here's the audio of that momentous confrontation. Here is the video of it. It is both chilling and inspiring to experience today. Here's what Katzenbach told the popular Southern governor after Wallace had made his "stand:"

You stand upon that statement. Governor, I'm not interested in a show, I don't know what the purpose of the show is. I am interested in the orders of these courts being enforced, that is my only responsibility here. I ask you once more, the choice is yours. There is no choice that the United States government has in this, but to see that the lawful orders of its court are enforced. The consequences of your stand must rest with you, the choice is yours.

A year earlier, it was Nicholas Katzenbach who had parachuted into Mississippi to help get James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi. What was the atmosphere like in Oxford at the time? Awful. Violent. Full of hate and rage. Here's how the Times' Claude Sitton saw it on October 1, 1962:

OXFORD, Miss., Oct. 1 -- James H. Meredith, a Negro, enrolled in the University of Mississippi today and began classes as Federal troops and federalized units of the Mississippi National Guard quelled a 15-hour riot. A force of more than 3,000 soldiers and guardsmen and 400 deputy United States marshals fired rifles and hurled tear-gas grenades to stop the violent demonstrations.

It was Katzenbach who played intermediary on voting rights between the Kennedy Administration and racist Mississippi senator James Eastland. It was Katzenbach who cajoled the appellate judges of the 5th Circuit to stand firm against persistent state defiance of federal court orders. It was Katzenbach who pushed for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the "pre-clearance" provision so often in the news today.  It was Kaztenbach whom Lyndon Johnson turned to for guidance in March 1965 after the police attacked civil rights protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

From the federal perspective, Katzenbach was the Forrest Gump of the Civil Rights movement. He rounded off RFK's harsh side and put teeth into JFK's style. He put the words in LBJ's mouth and took the words right out of the mouths of dozens of state officials who had vowed never to integrate their public places. Katzenbach accomplished this because he was smart, and self-deprecating, and because he looked like he could have been anyone's uncle. He fought hate not with love but with measured tones and a calm demeanor. In a time of great chaos, he was always a reasonable man.

It's one thing to honor the brave men and women who marched and sang and bled for racial equality-- and who still do today. It's quite another thing to honor those public officials, like Katzenbach, who helped the country achieve a measure of integration because it was their job to do so, because they had sworn an oath to do so, and because they believed that the lawlessness of the Southern response to desegregation was a threat to the rule of law. The same can and should be said of Burke Marshall and Archibald Cox and Bryon White and John Doar-- and only Doar is still with us today.

Like these other icons, World War II veterans all, Katzenbach represented the "boots on the ground" concept we've made popular today overseas. And his success as a tribune of the law should be measured not just by the violence he (largely) helped to avoid but also by the number of black students who enroll today without so much as a hiccup in Southern colleges. The law is only as real and as strong as are the men and women of good faith who are willing to sacrifice their safety to enforce it. As Katzenbach showed over and over again during those fractious times he was well worthy of that sacred trust.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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