Friday, May 11, 2012

From Civil Rights Confrontation to Crime Commission: Nick Katzenbach's 60s

If you agree with me that 40 to 50 year spans are an important generational break point for social trends (see my previous post this month) you'll be a regular reader of the obituaries, for that section of the newspaper is full of interesting stories about the people who were powerful and important 40-50 years ago (well if they were lucky enough to live into their 80s, more or less 40 years past their powerful 40s). If you are such a reader, and a reader of this blog you must have noticed the prominent obituary of Nicholas Katzenbach, a "key figure" (as obituaries like to put it) in the political events of the 1960s as a top legal adviser for both Presidents Kennedy, and Johnson, and to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, before serving himself as Attorney General for two years at the crux of the Johnson administration (read the Douglas Martin's comprehensive treatment in the NYTimes here). Then, after resigning as AG in the midst of a fight with J Edgar Hoover over the FBI's treatment of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Katzenbach largely disappeared from the public side of public life, steering the fortunes of large corporations at an elite law firm as if knowing in his own gut that the gateways of history had shut for the time being. One of his final tasks for Lyndon Johnson, heading up the President's Crime Commission (or as it was formally known, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice) provides a telling bookend to Katzenbach's Sixties. While the Commission does not figure prominently enough in his biography to have made the Times obituary, it may have helped convince Katzenbach that the gates were indeed shutting (read the report, now available online here). Katzenbach came from significant social and cultural capital and his career, interrupted as for so many in his generation by Pearl Harbor, marked an unbroken ascent into it.
Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach was born on Jan. 17, 1922, in Philadelphia, the younger of two sons of Edward Lawrence Katzenbach and the former Marie Louise Hilson. His father was a corporate lawyer and New Jersey attorney general from 1924 to 1929. He died when Nicholas was 12. His mother was a member of the New Jersey State Board of Education for 44 years and its president for a decade.
After the war he studied law at Yale and Oxford, and then taught law at Yale and the University of Chicago. He moved into the new Democratic administration of John Kennedy's in 1961 through his Yale connections with Byron "Whizzer" White, a deputy attorney general under Robert Kennedy, who would be given Kennedy's first seat on the Supreme Court. In the Justice Department, Katzenbach took part in perhaps the most iconic confrontation of the Kennedy administration's civil rights enforcement efforts, ordering of Alabama Governor George Wallace to remove himself from the doorway blocking the entrance of the first African American students to be admitted (through federal court order) to the University of Alabama. It was Katzenbach, apparently, who advised Johnson of the importance of appointing a national commission to investigate the assassination of JFK in Dallas; writing to Johnson aide Bill Moyers:
“The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at a trial.”
Conspiracy theorists would read in the memo (released in 1994), traces of a cover up, but perhaps even more saliently, of person adept at helping top leaders navigate the shoals between electoral democracy and the rule of law. As AG, Katzenbach fought to keep the Johnson administration if not supporting at least not directly frustrating the goals of Dr. King's wing of the civil rights movement, as the FBI, with Johnson's approval moved from wire tapping the civil rights leader to determine whether communists were influencing his movement, to using surveillance of King's marital infidelities in a plot to encourage his suicide. Katzenbach resigned when he realized his power as AG was insufficient to back down his nominal subordinate, J. Edgar Hoover. The Crime Commission that Katzenbach headed represented the Johnson administration's effort to get ahead of the growing wave of political concern about crime in America; one which Barry Goldwater had unsuccessfully invoked in the ,64 campaign, but whose salience would grow with each riot and uptick of the closely discussed homicide rate. Readers of this blog will know how that history turned out, but what is noteworthy here is that under Katzenbach's leadership the Commission represented the best that legal and social science expertise, wed to social democratic criminological assumptions could bring to bear on a problem that would ultimately politically eclipse the civil rights movement. Harvard Law's James Vorenberg was the Commission's operational head and he recruited a research team including many of the stars of 1960s sociology, political science, criminology, and law. Katzenbach's strategy of expert and evidence led crime policy would be swamped by a more ideologically driven demonization of urban criminals (mostly young men of color). Having grown up in those years, and very much identifying with that wave of liberal legalism and social democratic criminology, I will always wonder if they could have been more effective or whetheer the ideological cards were just too stacked in favor of a war on crime.

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