Nicholas Katzenbach on John Lewis, George Wallace and the 2008 Election

Question: Do you agree with Congressman John Lewis’ comments?

Nicholas Katzenbach: I more or less agree with John Lewis, although I think he may have overstated the case. But it is very difficult to believe that in some of the crowds that have been attracted by McCain and by Sarah Palin, that there are [not] a lot of prejudiced people in that crowd, and that that prejudice, I don’t think himself, I’m not trying to say he’s prejudiced. Whether he’s done all that he could to stop that, I don't know. Sarah Palin, as far as I’m aware, has done nothing.

Question: What do remember about confronting Wallace at the University of Alabama?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Well, we’ve gone down there, I went down with one or two people with me, and with General Abrams, who had two officers with him, and we didn’t know what Governor Wallace was going to do except we thought he was going to stand in the door. We doubted very much he was going to give in. Although we know he did not want violence, the question was whether he could prevent it. And, actually, I didn’t get much sleep the night before. There was a reporter who had a nervous breakdown. We had to get him to a hospital, and thing of that kind. And I went out in the morning and picked up Vivian Malone and James Hood, John [Dor] and I went out and picked the two of them up in Birmingham, drove them back to Tuscaloosa. On the way back, Bobby [called me] in a border patrol car with radio connections with Washington and Bobby called and he said, “What are you going to say to Governor Wallace?” and I said, “I don’t really know.” And he said, “Well, the President wants you to make him look foolish.” I said, “Fine. Got any ideas as to how to do that?” He said, “Oh, don’t worry, Nick. You’ll do fine.” And so we went on to the university. I had done a couple of things that I was pleased with, one was that I said I would go confront Governor Wallace without the two black students. I didn’t know, saw no reason why they should be insulted by the governor. And one of the things that I find moving even today was that the US Attorney in Birmingham and the US Marshal in Birmingham, both political appointees, in the Deep South, insisted on going with me, that it was part of their job to. And that was a very courageous thing in Alabama of that time. And it was hot as Hades. And so we walked up to door that they designated, and I got in the first words, I think, and the governor wanted to shut me up and [we got] back and forth a little bit, and I haven’t, to this day… I’ve seen it on television, but I can’t remember what I said, except I remember a couple of things that I liked. One was I annoyed the governor when I said, “I don't know what the purpose of this big show is. It’s just two students, qualified students, trying to get into the university in which they’re entitled to be admitted, and I don’t see any reason for this show,” and he didn’t like that. And so, they tried to put mikes on me that [the media did] and I wouldn’t have them, but there was no worry about that. He had a mike in every pocket of his suit and trousers and jacket and around his neck and every other place, so there wasn’t much danger of my not being… No. And then I had arranged with Frank Rose, the President, that when he rejected this, as we expected, that I would take Vivian and John [Dor] would take Jimmy Hood to their dormitory rooms. So, we didn’t leave the campus, which I thought was important, and, at that time, told the President [to kind of] federalize the guard, put it in federal service, the Alabama National Guard, which was commanded at that time by General [IB], who knew the governor very well, and so… I remember going back to telling General Abrams, who also slept all night in his seersucker suit. I said that we had to nationalize the Guard, and one of the lieutenant colonel with him said to the General, “I assume,” this would be to General Abrams, “I assume this would be uniforms, sir?” And Abrams, who always had a big cigar in his mouth, said, “Nah!” he said, “I don’t think so. Graham knows who I am.” And so the Guard got put in federal service. Then, Abrams came to me about an hour later, said, “General Graham had talked to the governor. They were quite friendly, Graham and the governor, and the governor wants to go back to be confronted by the military, under Graham’s command, and, if so, he will make a brief speech and he will leave, and he will leave all of his law enforcement people with instructions to keep order.” And that seemed like a hell of a good deal to me.

Question: Did you maintain order at the expense of the law?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Well, it’s interesting to me. I mean, I felt I’ve been down the Old Miss, where we had a really bad riot, people killed and a lot of people wounded, and a terrible riot, and I felt that that was a failure on our part. I’m not sure, in retrospect, that it was. I think you had to have an incident of that kind and that traumatic a thing, with the army coming and 22,000 strong in Oxford, Mississippi. But I think you had to have it, and people had to see what was in fact being faced, and I think, in retrospect, that that was a necessary part of the whole Civil Rights Movement, that one such incident should occur. And I think, in a funny way, Governor Wallace thought the same way. He didn’t want that kind of an incident to happen in Alabama. Governor Barnett did not get any credit for trying to keep James Meredith out of the University of Mississippi and causing a riot. That was not something that people in Mississippi had really contemplated.

Question: What did you tell your family, when you knew you were confronting danger?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Oh, well, we didn’t have cell phones then, so that was lucky. No, I just told her I had to go out of town, that I was going down to Oxford and she knew what was going on there. But I was lucky enough in my life to mary a remarkable woman, so I could tell her where I was doing it and what I was doing, and she didn’t try to lecture me or deter me. You had to understand that Vivian Malone was a very, as so many of the young blacks, where she is an exceptional person, and a very courageous one, as were James Hood and James Meredith, but I said, “You know, you’ve got to sit down in the cafeteria and eat because you’re going to have to do that, and the sooner we got over that the better.” And she said, “Okay,” and so she did. She sat by herself at a table, and almost immediately two other girl students came over and sat down with her, white students, and I think they were both from the North, to tell the truth, but that didn’t make very much difference. It was something had happened. We had crossed the threshold when that happened. But one of the differences between University of Mississippi, then, not today but then, and the University of Alabama is that the President of the University of Alabama, Frank Rose, wanted the university integrated and that was a very important factor. He knows Bobby Kennedy slightly and he was the source of information for us and a source of support throughout.

Question: What was it like to bear witness to such an ugly period of U.S. history?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Well, it was… when you’d think of… if you think of the riot at Old Miss, you can think of the four girls killed in the Birmingham bombing, you can think of that situation of Voting Act in Selma with Sheriff Clark, I mean, some of the things they did, they had… young kids were demonstrating, really kids, I mean, 10 years old, 12 years old. And the police chasing them with fire hoses and chasing them way down the road and maybe three miles, something like that, and then letting them escape, and then the [march] in Selma trying to go across the Pettus Bridge. But to see people who were unarmed, doing, asserting a constitutional right, Sheriff Clark was a perfect foil. I mean, the idea of using [IB] prods and hoses on people like that, horses, and that was [going] by television in the rooms all around the country and I think the American people just said enough is enough, stop it, which we should have said long before.


Recorded on: 10/22/2008




The man who confronted Gov. George Wallace at the doors of the University of Alabama reacts to Congressman John Lewis' comments and prejudice at McCain-Palin rallies.

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