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