In the early 1960s Nicholas Katzenbach was part of the cadre of talented lawyers from the Justice Department who worked to ensure that the national promise of equality too long ignored was finally kept. In those years, Katzenbach, as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s deputy and later as Attorney General himself, led the Department’s efforts to eliminate Jim Crow, secure the right to vote; and to open the public schools and other institutions of the Southern U.S. to blacks.
Katzenbach directed his team not just from his office in Washington. He joined them on several of the iconic civil rights battlefields of that period. He was at the University of Mississippi in September 1962 when federal troops beat back the violent resistance to the admission of James Meredith as its first black student. In June 1963, he was — in the famous confrontation with Alabama Governor George C. Wallace — the government’s point man in shepherding Vivian Malone and James Hood into the University of Alabama. Later, he played critical roles in drafting and lobbying Congress to enact both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On March 18, 1965, for example, as civil rights activism in Selma, Alabama underscored again the South’s racial injustice, Katzenbach testified in support of the Voting Rights Act in Congress. “In our system of government,” he said, “there is no right more central and no right more precious than the right to vote.”
He later argued the seminal case that carries his name, South Carolina v. Katzenbach, in which he successfully resisted the challenge to Congress’s power to enact the vital federal preclearance provision or Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The case decisively repelled the state’s rights ideology which had allowed Jim Crow to flourish in large regions of the nation, and vindicated Congress’s power to enforce the Constitution.
Katzenbach’s commitment to social justice was lifelong. He joined the Board of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. in the early 1970s, having left government service in the late 1960s to become senior vice president and general counsel of I.B.M. Even before joining LDF, however, he had made a signal contribution to its work – by bringing the organization into the computer age. To aid LDF’s work in investigating employment discrimination in the steel industry, Katzenbach sent computers to LDF and a computer specialist to explain their use. As Jack Greenberg, LDF’s Director-Counsel during this period, writes in Crusaders in the Courts:, “With statisticians and labor force economists using multiple regression analysis we prepared evidence for trial. In many cases not even the major American corporations could match us. [In some] our staff taught government lawyers how to do computer analyses.”
In that way and many others Nicholas Katzenbach’s contributions to the movement for social justice in America had a great impact far beyond the era of the early 1960s. They continue to resound today.