A native of central New Jersey born into a family of Princeton alumni, Katzenbach went on to become one of the most influential government leaders of the 1960s and one of the foremost advocates against segregation.
“[Katzenbach] was front and center on the issue of civil rights and the voice of the administration,” professor of history and public affairs Julian Zelizer said. “He turned the idea of civil rights into actual legislation.”
Perhaps Katzenbach’s most famous moment during the movement came on June 11, 1963, when instead of attending his 20th reunion at the University, he traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and faced down Governor George Wallace on the steps of the University of Alabama. He was backed by the National Guard and under direction from President John F. Kennedy to assist in the admittance of two African-American students to the previously segregated University.
“That image will be forever engraved in history,” history professor Sean Wilentz said. He explained that it was Katzenbach’s unflappable nature that allowed him to navigate such a tense situation. “If you knew Nick, he was not a man that was easily shaken up.”
African American studies professor Imani Perry said Katzenbach was an “ardent defender of federal civil rights legislation.” She commended him not just for arguing cases before the courts, but also for having the courage to confront segregationists face-to-face on their own turf.
“Many members of my own family have attended the University of Alabama since its desegregation, so I feel personally moved by his commitment to equality and civil rights,” she said.
Katzenbach continued the fight for justice and played an influential role in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the arduous process of getting it passed through Congress.
“He had to be strategic; he had to be tough,” Zelizer said. He described Katzenbach as being uniquely qualified to tackle the issue due to his ability both to listen to the concerns of the movement on the ground and to take into account political considerations in Washington.
“He had thick skin; he was very strategic and remarkably open and willing to listen,” Zelizer said.
During his time in the Kennedy administration, Katzenbach also wrote influential legal briefs justifying the naval blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, negotiated the release of prisoners following the Bay of Pigs invasion and — following the Kennedy assassination — wrote the memo that spearheaded the Warren Commission that investigated the killing.
He went on to serve as the Attorney General and Undersecretary of State for President Lyndon B. Johnson until 1968.
Katzenbach, who attended the University in the midst of World War II, had an unconventional University experience. After Pearl Harbor, at age 19, he left the University to enlist in the Army. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, he navigated B-25 bombers until his plane was shot down, and he spent two years as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany.
During his time as a POW, Katzenbach read over 400 books. When he returned to Princeton in 1945, he completed nine examinations and wrote his thesis all within two months before graduating cum laude. He went on to attend Yale Law School and was a Rhodes Scholar.
Katzenbach eventually served on the Board of Trustees at the University and was ranked as the 16th-most influential alumnus by the Princeton Alumni Weekly Magazine for the pivotal role he played in the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
“[H]e devoted his life to the common good of the nation and its citizens,” Perry said. “His legacy lives on here in the lives of Princeton’s many students who devote themselves to public service.”
Katzenbach is survived by his wife Lydia, his sons Christopher and John, his daughters Mimi and Anne and six grandchildren.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/05/11/30946/