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A Look Back at Nicholas Katzenbach's Recent Interview With Workforce Management

May 10, 2012
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Nicholas Katzenbach, one of the champions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has died.

Katzenbach, deputy attorney general during the Kennedy administration and attorney general during part of the Johnson administration, died May 8 at his home in Skillman, New Jersey. He was 90.

In what might have been his last interview, Katzenbach spoke to Workforce Management contributor Matthew Heller on the phone about his thoughts on the legislation and the difficulty both administrations had in getting the act through Congress.

In their conversation, which took place this past December, Heller says, Katzenbach was "personable" and he "chose his words carefully—like many lawyers." As Katzenbach shared in the interview, it didn't look like the Civil Rights Act had a chance to make it through Congress until Rep. Frank Thompson, D-New Jersey, suggested using the Griffin bill as the basis for the legislation

Using the bill—which was first introduced by Rep. Robert Griffin, a Republican—facilitated Republican support. It was not easy though. Katzenbach recalled personally reviewing every word with then-Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen from Illinois.

Katzenbach was blunt and "at his most animated about pragmatism in Washington," Heller says, in regard to Katzenbach's response to a question about the civil rights community's unhappiness with the legislation at the time. "It was a pretty lousy provision," Katzenbach said. "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. …. [Attorney General] Bobby Kennedy ... wanted to get as much of it as he could. Bobby liked to win. So did I."

He was also candid in his response to a question about how successful he thought Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—which prohibits discrimination in the workforce—has been: "Many businesses have at least attempted to sincerely be nondiscriminatory in their employment practices," Katzenbach said. "In that sense, I think it has worked." But, he went on to say, "I don't think we've achieved it yet," regarding the vision of fair employment in the U.S. workforce. "There's an awful lot of bias in our society still."

In a written statement U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this about Katzenbach: "Throughout one of the most challenging and consequential eras in American history, his extraordinary talents—and dedicated leadership of the Department of Justice—helped to guide our nation forward from the dark days of segregation and to secure the successful passage of the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts."

Indeed, in one of the most recognizable photographs of the era, Katzenbach is seen confronting Gov. George Wallace in the so-called "Stand at the Schoolhouse Door" at the University of Alabama over Wallace's unwillingness to enroll black students.

Regarding this historic event, Katzenbach told Heller, 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."

James Tehrani is Workforce Management's copy desk chief. Please comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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