Nicholas Katzenbach: Civil Rights Then and Now

Question: What was your relationship like with civil rights leaders?

Nicholas Katzenbach: We had, in a sense, a very good relationship with the civil rights leaders, but the civil rights leaders were always critical of what we were doing and always felt we weren’t doing enough. I think they were quite right in taking that view, but we couldn’t figure out how to do what it was that they wanted us to do or that that was in the interest of the country to do it. We did a great deal, but the answer had to be legislation. You had to have not the president, not the Attorney General involved in this, not even the Supreme Court with the Brown case and so forth. You really had to have the Congress and the people behind this. You weren’t going to get anywhere until that happened, and that was what we were trying to do, and thanks to Dr. King and the many people that worked with him in those peaceful demonstrations that he had, thanks to television for showing what the local sheriff’s offices and police officers were doing. Finally, people said this is wrong, and we were able to get that legislation, not by Democrats but by Democrats and Republicans working together.

Question: What was it like working with Dr. King?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Difficult at times. He was a great leader and deserves enormous credit for what he did. We wouldn’t be where we are today, we wouldn’t have succeeded in the ‘60s without the leadership of Martin Luther King. He was difficult only in the sense that her wanted you to do what he wanted you to do and you couldn’t always do it.

Question: Do Americans understand their own history?

Nicholas Katzenbach: I don't know what Americans’ understanding of the Civil Rights Movement is. If I had anything I wanted to correct, it would be this: the abuse of Blacks in this country started long before the Constitution, with slavery. We couldn’t resolve it in the Constitution. We couldn’t resolve it with the Civil War in 1860’s. It continued to be a blemish on this whole country. And what was important to get people to understand in the ‘60s, and it’s still important for people to understand today, that civil rights is not doing something for African-Americans. It’s doing something for all of us, because it is building a society that doesn’t have stupid prejudices, that can listen to other people, that can tolerate differences. That’s the country we have then, and that’s the country we should be.

Question: Where do you see civil rights today?

Nicholas Katzenbach: I think we have made an enormous amount of progress, but we’ve also driven, there’s a lot of bias that still exists, and there’s a lot of inequality that still exists. The black middle class has done very well, and so that you, you know, you see movie actors, you see judges, you see lawyers, you see business people, you even see some CEOs, and that’s all good, but you also see far too many African-Americans in jail, far too many African-Americans unemployed, and we have to do something, have to continue to do things that try to lift the bottom, to get it closer to the middle.

 

Recorded on: 10/22/2008

The man who worked with, among others, Dr. King, talks about his memories of the time and whether we are living "The Dream."

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