As Deputy and U.S. Attorney General during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Nicholas Katzenbach was a key governmental figure during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Although sometimes critical of Katzenbach’s positions, Martin Luther King praised him as someone who “made significant contributions to the parade of progress in human relations” (King, “My Dream”).
Katzenbach was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1922, the son of Edward L. Katzenbach, Attorney General of New Jersey, and Marie Hilson Katzenbach, a New Jersey state education official. His studies at Princeton were interrupted by World War II, during which he was a prisoner of war in both Italy and Germany. Following his release, he received his BA from Princeton (1945), his LLB from Yale (1947), and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in 1949. Katzenbach taught law at Yale and the University of Chicago during the 1950s. In 1961, Katzenbach was appointed Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel by President John F. Kennedy and was promoted to Deputy Attorney General the following year. In 1964, after Robert F. Kennedy’s resignation, he was appointed Attorney General. During the final years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential administration, Katzenbach served as the Under Secretary of state.
While at the Department of Justice, in 1961 Katzenbach urged Alabama officials to protect the freedom riders, and later intervened to enforce court orders to desegregate the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi.
King met with Katzenbach on several occasions. Their correspondence primarily centered on Katzenbach’s efforts to draft and secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Katzenbach also intervened in the Selma to Montgomery March (1965), asking that King not lead marchers across the Edmund Pettus bridge in defiance of Governor George Wallace and the local police force. King rejected the advice, replying: “Mr. Attorney General, you have not been a black man in America” (Greenberg, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Law,” 17109). Following King's assassination and the conclusion of the Johnson administration, Katzenbach went on to work as general counsel for IBM.
Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986.
Jack Greenberg, "Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Law," Congressional Record 114 (17 May 1968): 17109.
Katzenbach, interview by King Papers Project staff, 2 March 2007.
King, “My Dream: Great Expectations,” Chicago Defender, 11─17 December 1965.