Monday, January 17, 2011

Guest Blogger: Amy Schapiro on the 89th birthday of civil rights hero Nicholas Katzenbach.

Katzenbach confronting Alabama Governor George Corley Wallace outside the University of Alabama, 1963.  
In the last half of the twentieth century, the United States was transformed by many conflicts. None caused more public outcry than the struggles of the civil rights movement here at home and the bloodshed a world away in Vietnam. One man deeply entwined with both struggles, but often overlooked by history, is Nicholas Katzenbach, who celebrates his 89th birthday today.

For decades the image of this tall, balding government official confronting Governor George Wallace at the University of Alabama has come to symbolize the lengths to which Washington would go to desegregate America’s educational institutions.  Katzenbach, then Deputy Attorney General, was dispatched to Alabama by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to challenge the segregationist governor over the integration of the state university.

Nicholas Katzenbach in 1968.

In the midst of a media storm, Katzenbach stood his ground, ensuring that James Hood and Vivian Malone, two African-American students seeking entrance into this historically white university, were registered.

Among the throngs who watched this encounter unfold was a 12-year-old boy. As he later said, “1963 was a good year, the Dodgers beat the Yankees. I was 12, I was becoming aware of a lot going on, and seeing Katzenbach with Wallace sparked my interest.”

“I remember wondering who is a Deputy Attorney General (DAG) and looked it up in the encyclopedia to find out. I’m not sure if I found it there, but I remember learning that the DAG was essentially the Vice President of the Department of Justice.” Thirty years later that boy, Eric Holder,  became Deputy Attorney General. Today he serves as the first African American Attorney General in American history.  Little could Eric Holder have known then that he would assume the same positions as Katzenbach, both as DAG and later Attorney General, or that Vivian Malone, one of the two students who integrated the University of Alabama, would be his future sister-in-law.

Katzenbach’s focus as both Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General was on passage of civil rights legislation and its enforcement. Without enforcement, the law would be hollow. Katzenbach was the rare person who was trusted by both Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And, it was Katzenbach who succeeded Kennedy as Johnson’s Attorney General. Although RFK and LBJ despised each other, they both, at different times, came to rely on Katzenbach to advise, shape, and move legislation forward.

When Katzenbach was not putting out fires in the field, he was busy navigating the legislative minefield and the pressure of civil rights activists to secure the codification of equal rights for all Americans.
 As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., and his great strides in changing the fabric of our society, let's also remember Nicholas Katzenbach who today, January 17, celebrates his 89th birthday. 

Happy Birthday.

Amy Schapiro is writing a biography of Nicholas Katzenbach entitled, Leading Justice: The Life of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach to be published by the University of Alabama.


Susan L. said...

Happy Birthday and Congratulations, Mr. Katzenbach!

Kudos to you, Amy, for choosing to wirte about such a noteworthy, living legend! I look forward to the biography.

Stephanie Deutsch said...

Loved this post. I am just back from an amazing tour of civil rights sites led by Julian Bond with a group from UVa. Visited several wonderful museums that I'm sure you know about and walked across the Pettus bridge in Selma. I look forward to your book!