The Who2 Blog

Obituary of the Day: Nicholas Katzenbach, Who Went Nose to Nose With George Wallace

A photo of George Wallace standing in a doorway, surrounded by his own police, facing a balding man with his arms crossed

When George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, blocking black students from entering and declaring “segregation forever,” an equally determined man stood opposite him: Nicholas Katzenbach, deputy attorney general and the John F. Kennedy administration’s man on the spot.

Katzenbach has died at age 90 in Princeton, New Jersey after a long and distinguished career.

Nicholas Katzenbach was one of the “best and the brightest” who joined the Kennedy administration in 1961, as a deputy to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. That’s how he found himself in Alabama two years later. He was Kennedy’s front man as the federal government forced the Southern states to integrate their schools:

“Looking businesslike in a suit and tie, his bald head sweating under the Alabama sun, Katzenbach walked up to the entrance of a university building and handed Wallace, who stood in the shade, a presidential proclamation saying he must obey the law. The nation watched on television, including a nervous Robert Kennedy at his office in Washington.
It was a historic confrontation, but resolved in advance. President Kennedy had federalized the Alabama National Guard and ordered some of its units to the university campus. An agreement was then reached between the White House and Wallace’s aides, and [two students] enrolled at the school after Wallace read a proclamation to Katzenbach and left.”
I love how matter-of-fact and determined Katzenbach looks in that photo.
He led a colorful life. He was shot down in Europe during World War II, spent two years in a German prison camp, was later a Rhodes Scholar, and served as attorney general in the Lyndon Johnson administration.
Also, he had a marvelous middle name:
Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach was born in Philadelphia in 1922 to a family of politicians. His middle name, with the unusual abbreviation deB., came from a forebear who had served as physician to Napoleon’s brother before emigrating to the U.S.
A balding Nicholas Katzenbach looks on as a black student enters the doors of the University of Alabama
And he got the job done in Alabama.

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