Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who cast a long shadow in U.S. civil rights history, died this week at the age of 90. According to his alma mater, Princeton University, the longtime civil servant died from natural causes May 8 at his home in Skillman, N.J.

“Mr. Katzenbach was a defining force in the civil rights movement,” said the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in a statement. “In addition to serving as a key figure in the presidential administrations of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, he personally stood up against segregationists and fought for historic civil rights legislation.”

Katzenbach will mostly be remembered for his central role in one of the most dramatic moments of the civil rights struggle, when a segregationist leader stood in the door of a schoolhouse to prevent integration. Then a deputy attorney general in the Kennedy administration, Katzenbach on June 11, 1963 successfully faced-off with Alabama’s then-Gov. George Wallace, who was attempting to block two Black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, from entering the University of Alabama.

The attorney also faced an angry mob, which sought to block African-American student James Meredith from registering at the segregated University of Mississippi.

Later, as the U.S. attorney general under President Johnson, Katzenbach drafted and helped pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Mr. Katzenbach’s life work is a reflection of a man that grasped the nexus of democracy and the rule of law,” stated the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which Katzenbach had a hand in establishing. “He worked assiduously to rid our nation of the polarizing effects of discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations through the enactment of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. He drafted and helped to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voter-registration practices and enabled thousands of African Americans to vote for the first time.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose sister-in-law was one of the students Katzenbach personally escorted into the segregated University of Alabama, called his predecessor “one of our nation’s great champions of civil rights and equal justice.”

“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,” Holder said in a statement.
He later added, “Although Nick Katzenbach will be sorely missed, there is much to celebrate in the life he lived, in the example he set, and in the inspiration he will continue to provide – for me, for my colleagues across the Department of Justice, and for the nation he was so proud to serve.”

That legacy of service began early, when Katzenbach fought in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. After his plane was shot down over the Mediterranean Sea off North Africa in 1943, he was imprisoned in a German enemy camp for more than a year.

After graduating from Princeton, he attended Yale Law School and was a Rhodes Scholar.
Katzenbach joined the Kennedy administration in the 1960s. In addition to his roles in the Justice Department, he served in advisory roles to Kennedy and Johnson, helping to guide the nation’s foreign policies on the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs.
He is survived by wife, Lydia, sons Christopher and John, and daughters Maria and Anne.

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO