Nicholas Katzenbach

14 May
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Film still of Nicholas Katzenbach from “Eyes on the Prize I”

Nicholas Katzenbach, who was involved in several major incidents of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, died on May 8, 2012. He was 90 years old. Katzenbach was interviewed for the Blackside series, Eyes on the Prize I.

As Deputy U.S. Attorney General, under Robert Kennedy, Katzenbach was instrumental in the desegregation of both the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi. In one incident captured by the media, he confronted Governor George Wallace in what would become known as the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” Wallace eventually stepped aside and Katzenbach escorted the students who were able to register for classes.

His interview for Eyes on the Prize I, covered a wide range of topics from the encounter with Wallace to the violent clashes that occurred when the University of Mississippi was desegregated with the enrollment of James Meredith. Meredith’s attempt to attend the university was met with riots, violence, and the deployment of federal troops. Katzenbach was in Oxford, Mississippi at that moment and described it in his interview:

There the highway patrol was in front, marshals were lined up around the building, and the governor had said the highway patrol would stay and maintain order. The students were shouting a lot of taunts, throwing matches occasionally, that kind of thing and the highway patrol did not stay. The head of the highway patrol was there and he just suddenly ordered his people away, and as soon as the highway patrol drove out, it was almost as though that was a signal to people for the riot to begin…we had had reports throughout,not merely the students, but of all kinds of people pouring in, in cars, in order to prevent Meredith from being admitted to to Old Miss. One has to remember also that that was the squirrel hunting season in Mississippi so there were literally hundreds, thousands of guns. Every pickup truck had a couple of guns in it, so that the situation was really very dangerous.

Katzenbach also helped draft and defend the the landmark Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which addressed the huge problem of systematic African-American voter discrimination. This bill was spurred on by the events of Bloody Sunday in Selma, another event where Katzenbach helped negotiate the federal protection of march from Selma to Montgomery.

At the end of his interview, he summarized what he felt the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 had accomplished:

I think what existed and had existed in the South really as a result of slavery was a caste system that was effectively enforced by state law and by state officials. I think that system was broken by the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts. So that I think that was broken, and broken forever. So you didn’t have any more state enforced segregation. Now the fact that you don’t have state enforced segregation doesn’t solve the problems of discrimination, it doesn’t solve the problems of people’s feelings, it doesn’t solve the problems of education, it doesn’t give blacks who have been denied an education don’t automatically become well educated and well qualified to do things. And those problems have remained. And while I think a good deal of progress has been made with respect to those problems in my judgment, they aren’t solved yet today, but I do think the problem of state enforced segregation has effectively been resolved and that you can’t turn the clock back on that.

To read the entire text of this interview, or to read other interviews from Eyes on the Prize, visit the Film & Media Archive’s and Digital Library Service’s joint project, Eyes on the Prize Interviews: The Complete Series.

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