Lawyers' Committee Mourns Passing of Civil Rights Icon Nicholas deB. Katzenbach


Nicholas Katzenbach (January 17, 1922-May 8, 2012)

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is deeply saddened by the passing of Nicholas deB. Katzenbach on May 8, 2012. Mr. Katzenbach was a defining force in the civil rights movement. In addition to serving as a key figure in the presidential administrations of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, he personally stood up against segregationists and fought for historic civil rights legislation. A man of great character, courage, vision and influence, he was the focal point of many seminal civil rights moments in our nation's history - facing down an angry mob of protesters as African American student James Meredith sought to register at the segregated University of Mississippi and, challenging governor George Wallace at the doorway of the University of Alabama to allow African American students to attend the school.

In addition to these heroic and historic acts, Katzenbach played an essential role in the founding of the Lawyers' Committee. As Deputy Attorney General under President Kennedy, Katzenbach worked closely with former American Bar Association President Bernie Segal and his associate Jerome Shestack to organize the June 21, 1963 White House meeting of 244 prominent attorneys. This "call to action" brought lawyers together from across the country to discuss the engagement of the legal community in the civil rights struggle. Following that meeting, Lawyers' Committee founders continued to work closely with Katzenbach. On August 13, 1963 he attended the Lawyers' Committee's first general meeting of the boards of directors and conveyed President Kennedy's support for the organization, sending a strong message to the legal community that the mission of the Lawyers' Committee was critical.

Later, in private practice and as one of America's leading corporate counsel, Katzenbach remained committed to equal justice and was generous with his time and expertise.  On December 13, 2010, we were honored to recognize him with the Lawyers' Committee's highest award- the Lloyd N. Cutler Lifetime Achievement Award. This award recognizes an individual whose distinguished career of exceptional achievement and service has advanced equal justice under law.

Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee, praised the extraordinary contributions Katzenbach made throughout his life and emphasized that "though we all mourn the loss of this true champion of justice, we celebrate his amazing legacy."

“We have lost a quiet giant," said Don Rosenberg, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Qualcomm, Inc. and a member of the Board of Directors and Trustees of the Lawyers' Committee. "Nick’s enormous intellect, strength of will and moral compass were his tools of persuasion.  He has left an enduring legacy through his accomplishments and in the lives of those he touched directly and indirectly.  It was a privilege to have known him." 

Katzenbach's illustrious career of defending the principles of democracy began when he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.  While performing his duty as a navigator, his plane was shot down over the Mediterranean Sea off North Africa.  Consequently, he spent over two years as a prisoner of war in Italian and German POW camps.  He later attended Yale Law School where he served as editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal and graduated cum laude.  He was a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford University in England.  In 1961, he was appointed Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel by President 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 Johnson's administration, Katzenbach served as the Under Secretary of State.

Mr.  Katzenbach's life work is a reflection of a man that grasped the nexus of democracy and the rule of law. He worked assiduously to rid our nation of the polarizing effects of discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations through the enactment of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.  He drafted and help to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voter-registration practices and enabled thousands of African Americans to vote for the first time.

The Lawyers' Committee offers its deepest condolences to Mr. Katzenbach's wife, Lydia, sons Christopher and John and daughters Maria and Anne.

Practical Progressive - Official Selection 2008