My Blog

The Order Katzenbach Was Enforcing . . .

Nicholas Katzenbach, former Attorney General of the United States, died on May 8 at age 90 and was widely memorialized as an important figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. His most famous moment came in 1963 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa when as a deputy attorney general he was selected to enforce the law at what became known as Alabama Governor George C. Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door,” a grandstanding futile effort to prevent black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from desegregating the school.

George Wallace blocking University of Alabama integration; Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach pictured
George Wallace is confronted by Nicholas Katzenbach while blocking the integration of the University of Alabama, June 11, 1963. (Library of Congress)

Of course, Wallace’s ploy might not have been futile without the determined actions of federal officials like Katzenbach, notes civil rights lawyer Fred Gray, author of Bus Ride to Justice. Gray had more than a passing interest in the events in Tuscaloosa on June 11, 1963, because Katzenbach was there to enforce a court order obtained by Gray and fellow civil rights attorney Arthur Shores of Birmingham.

“The nation has lost a faithful and forceful advocate for civil and constitutional rights with the passing of Nicholas Katzenbach,” Gray said this week. “It was his and other Justice Department officials’ responsibility to enforce the federal laws, not only those enacted by Congress but also the orders of federal courts across the nation. In the Malone/Hood case, Katzenbach had the courage to face the governor and ask him to step aside so the court’s order could be enforced. He was one of many such federal officials who were so important to bring about equality under our Constitution, because those court orders were of no value if they could not be enforced. If Wallace had been able to thwart the federal judges who were applying Constitutional rule, then we would not have gotten anywhere.”

After making a bombastic speech, Wallace finally did step aside, and the federal court order obtained by Fred Gray and his colleagues was enforced, and Malone and Hood did enroll and segregation thus ended at the University of Alabama. Katzenbach went on to become Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson. Wallace was paralyzed in an assassination attempt in 1972 but was elected governor a record four times and eventually apologized for his segregationist past and crowned a black homecoming queen at the University of Alabama.

And Fred Gray and Arthur Shores (now deceased) kept on filing civil rights lawsuits and obtaining federal court orders which the Justice Department enforced. Gradually, Gray’s famous pledge to “destroy everything segregated I could find,” as revealed in Bus Ride to Justice, was realized with scores of successful civil rights cases. Gray is now 80 years old, but he still gives speeches around the country explaining how the civil rights movement succeeded, in part because of the roles played by civil rights lawyers like himself, federal judges, and federal officials like Nick Katzenbach, who were all determined that the words of the U.S. Constitution would mean in practice what they said on paper.

Bus Ride to Justice has remained in print since it was first published in 1995. It is being reissued this summer in a revised edition to include the more recent events and developments in Gray’s life and in civil rights.