Nicholas Katzenbach: the Loss of a Civil Rights Hero

May 10, 2012
Guest Post

By Estelle Rogers, Legislative Director, Project Vote

The civil rights movement lost a hero yesterday:  Nicholas Katzenbach, whom I was privileged to know for more than 20 years. Even his name said a lot: Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach. A son of privilege. Exeter and Princeton, a distinguished stint in World War II, then back to Yale Law School and a Rhodes at Oxford. He could have done anything – and indeed, he did a lot of things, including many years as General Counsel of IBM. 

But we should remember him as the man who accompanied James Meredith when he enrolled in Ole Miss, who faced down George Wallace at the University Alabama door (pictured), who put the power of the U.S. Justice Department behind the fight for racial equality, and who co-authored the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was a very large man. (The Katzenbach-Wallace confrontation must have been particularly gratifying for the federal marshals to watch.) He was an even larger presence.

I first met Nick Katzenbach the way I’ve met a lot of terrific people: I cold-called him and asked him to do something for the greater good. In this case, it was an amicus brief on another civil rights issue, the right to abortion. He said yes. The brief was to be filed in the Supreme Court on behalf of a large legal organization, and it was a delicate drafting job, overseen by a committee. I will never forget a particular conference call after he had circulated the first draft. I felt a little sheepish and expressed discomfort at critiquing a brief by the former Attorney General of the United States. “Oh, forget it!” he said. “My partners do it all the time.” He had an ego, no doubt about it, but he also knew when to put it aside.

After serving as Deputy Attorney General to Bobby Kennedy, and then as attorney general in the early years of the Johnson administration, he took a demotion to become undersecretary of State. He wanted to end the Vietnam War, and at that he was a failure. It may have been his only one.

[image via Library of Congress]