Nicholas Katzenbach, Kennedy’s Civil-Rights Envoy, Dies at 90

Former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach
Former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committe hearing on the Worldcom bankruptcy in Washington in July 2003. Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg

Nicholas Katzenbach, who helped steer U.S. civil-rights policy under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and faced off against Governor George Wallace to force the integration of the University of Alabama, has died. He was 90.

Katzenbach died yesterday at his home in Skillman, New Jersey, the New York Times reported, citing his wife, Lydia.

In senior positions at the Justice Department, including attorney general, Katzenbach played a central role in some of the nation’s biggest battles over racial integration. He later moved to the State Department, where he toiled without success to help Johnson find a solution to the escalating conflict in Vietnam that didn’t involve a unilateral withdrawal.

“He had one of the most brilliant and creative legal minds I have encountered, and approached public service with total seriousness,” Clark Clifford, who served several posts under Kennedy and Johnson, wrote of Katzenbach in his memoir. “At the same time he saw the ironic side of service in Washington -- the endless games some people play, the petty deals that are often necessary in the pursuit of objectives of great purpose.”

Named an assistant attorney general at the start of Kennedy’s presidency in 1961, Katzenbach was promoted a year later to deputy to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother.

Call for Troops

In September 1962, Robert Kennedy dispatched Katzenbach to Oxford, Mississippi, to oversee the federal marshals protecting James Meredith, the black student who had won a court order to be admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi. As thousands of protesters gathered and the threat of violence rose, Katzenbach told Kennedy, from a pay phone, that soldiers would be needed to keep the peace.

After the arrival of 25,000 Army troops, Meredith managed to register. Katzenbach called him “a brave man who received perhaps the most expensive public education in our history.”

Several months later Katzenbach was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to confront Wallace over his insistence that the University of Alabama remain whites-only.

Their standoff, stage-managed for news cameras by Wallace, produced some of the most famous images of the civil-rights era, as Katzenbach delivered a presidential proclamation in support of the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood, then stood in the hot sun as Wallace denounced the federal intrusion on state rights.

Civil Rights Act

Under Kennedy and then under Johnson, Katzenbach drafted and helped win passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed most discrimination based on race or gender, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson, who became president after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, named Katzenbach as attorney general, succeeding Robert Kennedy, who had left to run for Senate in 1964.

“The Kennedy-Johnson years will be remembered in history for what was done with respect to race,” Katzenbach wrote in “Some of It Was Fun,” his 2008 memoir. “It is difficult today to visualize the extent of racial divisions in our country and to recognize how overtly prejudiced most white Americans were against black citizens.”

In a 2008 interview with Bloomberg Television, Katzenbach said: “Many of us in the government had been junior officers in World War II. We wanted peace in the world, we wanted this country to lead in the right direction, and I guess in an arrogant way we thought we were the people to do it.”

Former POW

Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach was born on Jan. 17, 1922, in Philadelphia and raised in Trenton, New Jersey. His father, Edward, served as New Jersey attorney general; his mother, Marie, was the first female president of the New Jersey State Board of Education.

He served as a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and spent 27 months as a prisoner of war after his B-25 Mitchell bomber was shot down in 1943 over the Mediterranean Sea.

He attended Princeton University, graduating in 1945, and received his law degree from Yale Law School in 1947, serving as editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal. He studied at Oxford University in the U.K. for two years as a Rhodes Scholar and worked two years at the Pentagon in the office of the Air Force general counsel.

He taught law at Yale and the University of Chicago before joining the Kennedy administration in 1961 as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. He got the job through Byron White, a Yale friend who was deputy attorney general under Robert Kennedy. When President Kennedy named White to the Supreme Court in 1962, Katzenbach was promoted to the deputy post.

Showdown With Wallace

His June 11, 1963, showdown with Wallace in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama became a signal moment in the push to integrate the U.S. South.

A federal judge had ordered that Malone and Hood be permitted to enroll, giving Wallace -- who had famously vowed, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” -- the chance to follow through on his promise to stand at the schoolhouse doors to block integration.

Katzenbach, carrying a proclamation from the president, confronted Wallace, who refused to yield. Journalist Marshall Frady, recalling the moment in his biography of Wallace, described the two men “exchanging vaguely irritable and exasperated phrases, like a short, idle, haphazard argument on some street corner” and “Katzenbach with arms folded tightly and a faint expression of pained sufferance.”

Wallace Relents

Katzenbach escorted Malone to her dormitory without incident, then reported by secure telephone to Robert Kennedy. President Kennedy activated the Alabama National Guard, whose commanding general, Henry Graham, then directed Wallace to stand aside. Wallace relented.

After the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, Katzenbach helped push for creation of the independent investigatory panel that became known as the Warren Commission. He later acknowledged that a memo he wrote just three days after the assassination, on the need for a government investigation that laid conspiracy theories to rest, might have accomplished the opposite. He said he agreed with the commission’s conclusion that a solo assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, killed Kennedy.

Katzenbach’s tenure as attorney general was marked by conflict with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover over the bureau’s use of wiretaps. Katzenbach jumped at the chance, in September 1966, to move to the State Department as undersecretary, and led trips to South Vietnam in 1966 and 1967.

Seeking Peace

Johnson “wanted me to make a priority of exploring a negotiated peace in Vietnam along every avenue possible,” Katzenbach wrote in his memoir. He said obstacles to that goal included Johnson’s own reluctance to “cut and run.”

Katzenbach left government in 1969 to become vice president and general counsel of International Business Machines Corp. In 1987 he became a partner at the law firm Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown, New Jersey.

In 1991 he succeeded Clifford as chairman of First American Bankshares Inc., after regulators discovered that it was controlled by the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which was seized after auditors found evidence of bribery, money-laundering and fraud.

He became chairman of WorldCom Inc. in 2004 as the long-distance telephone company prepared to exit bankruptcy following an accounting scandal. The company took the name of its long-distance unit, MCI Inc., and Katzenbach served as chairman through its 2006 purchase by Verizon Communications Inc.

Besides his wife, the former Lydia King Phelps Stokes, he is survived by two sons, Christopher and John, a novelist, his daughters Maria and Anne deBelleville Katzenbach, and six grandchildren, according to the Times.

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