nicholas katzenbach

George, you and I shouldn’t be talking about 1964, we should be talking about 1984. We’ll both be dead and gone then. Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. A lot of people need jobs, a lot of people need a future. You could do a lot for them, George. Your President will help you. Now, in 1984, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says, ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh, caliche soil that reads, 'George Wallace: He Hated’?

President Lyndon B. Johnson, imploring Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace to help protect Civil Rights activists led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who planned to finish the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights which was originally interrupted by violence from law enforcement and white citizens against the non-violent protesters on Bloody Sunday in Selma.

Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who was in the Oval Office during the meeting between President Johnson and Governor Wallace and witnessed LBJ used his famed Johnson Treatment" against the staunch opponent of civil rights later said, “That was the most amazing conversation I’ve ever been present at.”


June 11th 1963: The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door

On this day in 1963, segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace stood at the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students (Vivian Malone and James Hood) from attending. Around the United States, following the Supreme Court declaring school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), schools were being desegregated. Wallace became well-known nationwide for his opposition to desegregation, famously declaring in his inaugural speech “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. As Wallace stood in the door, he was confronted by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach who, when Wallace refused to move, called President John F. Kennedy who federalised the Alabama National Guard. General Henry Graham of the National Guard then asked him to step aside on the President’s orders, which Wallace reluctantly did, thus allowing Malone and Hood to register.

Vivian Malone and James Hood, accompanied by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach attempt to register at the University of Alabama.

Forty years ago today, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood at the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in a symbolic attempt to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling at the school. The drama of the nation’s division over desegregation came sharply into focus that June day.  [Continue reading, listen to the NPR report, and/or watch video.] 

Obit of the Day: In the Center of the ‘60s

Three days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, deputy attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach wrote a memo. It opened with “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at a trial.” Several days later, Lyndon Johnson would create the Warren Commission which investigated and determined that Oswald was, in fact, the lone killer of President Kennedy.

During his eight years in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Katzenbach was smack dab in the middle of some of the most turbulent events in a most turbulent decade. While serving both Kennedy and Johnson (and under Johnson as both a deputy AG and later under-secretary of state), Katzenbach would be personally involved in:

  • Negotiating the release of hostages after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
  • Writing the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • Arguing for the Civil Rights Act on behalf of the government in front of the Supreme Court
  • Meeting with segregationist governor George Wallace and negotiating the entrance of the first black students at the University of Alabama
  • Convincing President Johnson to confront J. Edgar Hoover about the illegal and unethical wiretapping and blackmail of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Defending Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War before Congress

That is a full career in government service.

Katzenbach, who was the son of the NJ Attorney General, attended Princeton but left to fight in World War II. Serving as a navigator on a B25 bomber, Katzenbach’s plane was shot down and he was held for a period in a German POW camp. According to Katzenbach, he read 400 books during his fifteen months of captivity, as experience he used for his argument with Princeton that he should be given a degree. (They made him take several exams and write a thesis but they generally acquiesced.) Katzenbach would then earn a degree from Yale Law School and was named a Rhodes Scholar. He would also teach at Yale and the University of Chicago.

Nicholas Katzenbach passed away at the age of 90.

Random note: Katzenbach played hockey in high school and used his 6’ 2" frame to cover the net as a goalie.

(Image of Nicholas Katzenbach approaching Governor George Wallace at this exact moment: Mr. Katzenbach, in front of television cameras and flanked by a federal marshal and a United States attorney, approached Foster Auditorium, the main building on campus, around 11 a.m. Mr. Wallace was waiting behind a lectern at the top of the stairs, surrounded by a crowd of whites, some armed. “Stop!” he called out, raising his hand. Courtesy of