In Mississippi during the Civil Rights struggles, if you were liberal you kept quiet, at least I did. People who openly supported integration were punished economically, socially, and often physically.
In those dark times, we looked to people from outside the South to speak and act for us. One of those brave men was Nicholas Katzenbach, who died last week at ninety.
Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach was born in 1922, and educated at Exeter, Princeton, and Yale. During WWII, he was a navigator on B-25 bombers, was shot down over Germany in 1943, and kept as a prisoner of war for 15 months.
As Robert Kennedy’s deputy attorney general, Katzenbach went to the University of Mississippi in 1962, to help James Meredith register as the first Negro student. In the face of riots, he allowed Federal Marshalls protecting Meredith to be armed only with tear gas. Though two people died that night, and hundreds were injured before federal troops arrived, many more would have been killed if not for Katzenbach’s cool management of an incendiary situation.
He steered the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act through Congress, and defended the 1964 Act in front of the Supreme Court, winning a 9-0 decision.
Katzenbach is probably best remembered for his 1963 confrontation with Alabama Governor George Wallace (“segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”), at the schoolhouse door.
Nicholas Katzenbach lived by a code: Reasonable men can always work things out.
We could use a few more men (and women) like him.