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Nicholas Katzenbach (1922-2012): A Civil Rights Leader’s Legacy

Nicholas Katzenbach died May 8, 2012, at the age of 90.

It was late last year when I began mulling which difference-makers to contact for interviews as part of our 90th anniversary. Knowing that one of the topics we planned to cover was civil rights, I started researching the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to see who was involved in getting the legislation passed. One name that jumped out at me was Nicholas Katzenbach.

I knew, of course, about President John F. Kennedy and later President Lyndon Johnson’s role in getting the act passed, but there was something about the name Katzenbach that intrigued me. And there aren’t many people left from that era to talk about it. I was happy to find out that Katzenbach, then 89, had written a book a few years ago called Some of It Was Fun about his years as the deputy attorney general during the Kennedy administration and then as attorney general during the Johnson administration. There couldn’t have been a better source.

So I sent an email off to his publisher and asked if they could put me in touch with him so that we could arrange an interview, and they were nice enough to pass off his direct email address. So I sent him an email on Nov. 30, 2011, explaining what we were doing and how we’d love to get his insight into his role in getting the Civil Rights Act passed and his thoughts on Title VII, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace. I eagerly awaited a response—a response that would come on Dec. 2 in a short, one-sentence answer: “I would be happy to talk to you but I’m not sure of my qualifications—Nicholas Katzenbach.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Katzenbach, indeed, was the firsthand source on the Civil Rights Act. His knowledge of the events that led to its passing and his participation in said events were unequaled. In both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Katzenbach worked tirelessly to get the act passed. And although the initial legislation left many activists disappointed in its scope, particularly regarding Title VII, in the interview that he gave with our writer, Matthew Heller, Katzenbach explained: “It was a pretty lousy provision. It was too cumbersome. … But it was the best that we could do. We wanted to get something passed and then amend it in the future. It’s a lot easier to amend a law than do a completely new one. The chance of a fair employment provision was next to nothing. [Attorney General] Bobby Kennedy … wanted to get as much of it as he could. Bobby liked to win. So did I.”

And win he did. (As Susan Hauser reports in our civil rights article about the 1960s and today, the legislation has been amended a number of times since to strengthen it and to add protections to more workers.)

Katzenbach, who was a prisoner of war for two years during World War II, knew something about going into unfriendly territory. In a time when Jim Crow segregation laws were still in force in the South, Katzenbach took the fight for rights directly below the Mason-Dixon line. In his book he talks about the scary experience he had going into Mississippi in 1962 to help get a student registered at the University of Mississippi. “In addition to stones and bricks, people in the crowd began to throw the occasional Molotov cocktail (Coke bottles filled with gasoline),” Katzenbach wrote. As history shows, it was an explosive time in the U.S., and Katzenbach was one of the people leading the charge for change.

Of course, the most iconic image of Katzenbach was from a year later when he confronted Gov. George Wallace at the entrance to the University of Alabama about letting African-American students enroll. When Heller asked Katzenbach about that day, he answered: Wallace “was standing in the shade and had put me in the sun. I was trying to say something that didn’t make me look like an idiot. … I wanted to protect the students. I didn’t see why they should be insulted. It was sufficient that he insult me.”

But that not’s surprising. Katzenbach, who died on May 8, at the age of 90, was always thinking about other people first.

James Tehrani is Workforce Management’s copy desk chief. Comment below or send an email to editors@workforce.com.