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Attorney Katzenbach Was A Key Force For Civil Rights


This morning we remember a man who stood up to George Wallace before the eyes of the world. Nicholas Katzenbach became attorney general in the Johnson administration and played a pivotal role in much of the civil rights history of the 1960s. He died this week at his home in New Jersey at the age of 90. NPR's Debbie Elliott looks back at his life.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: As deputy to JFK's brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Nicholas Katzenbach was a central figure in the U.S. government's showdown with defiant Southern governors resisting integration. In one of the most famous scenes from the time, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The much taller Katzenbach approached, arms crossed at his chest and sweat soaking his pant legs in the sweltering Alabama heat.

NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: And I've come here to ask you now for an unequivocal assurance that you will permit these students, who, after all, merely want an education at the great university...

GOVERNOR GEORGE WALLACE: Oh, you make your statement, but we don't need for you to make a speech. You make your statement.

KATZENBACH: I will make my statement, Governor. I was in the process of making my statement.

ELLIOTT: Wallace eventually stepped aside in the face of Katzenbach and national guardsmen. In a 2011 interview on BigThink.com, Katzenbach recalled talking to Bobby Kennedy just before the standoff.

KATZENBACH: He said what are you going to say to Governor Wallace, and I said well I don't really know. He said, well, the president wants you to make him look foolish.

ELLIOTT: Katzenbach proved to be a steady presence in tense moments. The Princeton- and Yale-educated lawyer had been a POW during World War II. He advised President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. When JFK was assassinated, it was Katzenbach who helped Lyndon Johnson with the presidential oath, and then sought the independent investigation that would come to be the Warren Commission.

Johnson later appointed him attorney general. His stamp was on both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. And he went head to head with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover over his wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Frustrated with Hoover's tactics in 1966, Katzenbach resigned as attorney general, and took a post as undersecretary of state. In his interview with Big Think, he called the job a failure.

KATZENBACH: While there were a few things that I got done in the state department, I didn't get us out of Vietnam and that was the most important thing of all.

ELLIOTT: Nicholas Katzenbach spent only six years in government before returning to private practice, but those six years wrought major change in the course of the country. His 2008 memoir is titled "Some of It Was Fun."

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.


SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.