One of my great heroes dies . . .

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.

Katzenbach, center, in backseat next to James Meredith, as they leave the Memphis airport on the way to Oxford, Mississippi, to register Meredith at the University.

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, center, flanked by John Doar and Thurgood Marshall, at Supreme Court for defense of 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Katzenbach is probably best remembered for his 1963 confrontation with Alabama Governor George Wallace (“segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”), at the schoolhouse door.

Katzenbach towers over Wallace. After two hours, Wallace backed down and the black students were allowed to register.

Nicholas Katzenbach lived by a code: Reasonable men can always work things out.

We could use a few more men (and women) like him.

3 responses »

  1. A former friend, and Obama-hating southern Republican, informed entirely by Fox ‘news,’ recently told a friend of mine that she was a great admirer of George Wallace and felt as he did about the separation of the races. She shut her racist mouth when my friend reminded her that eventually George Wallace wheeled himself to the front of a Black church and apologized. If he is to be admired for anything, it should be for recognizing and admitting he was so terribly wrong.

  2. Thanks, Norma, for this history lesson. We take so much for granted these days, it’s good to be reminded that it warn’t always this way, and that the changes were never easy, and might never have been made if it wern’t for the courage of some brave souls. .

  3. Thank you Norma.
    Remembering is important


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