Katzenbach Memorial – University of Alabama

Marina Roberts provides opening remarks at the Nicholas Katzenbach memorial service held in front of the school house door

The Tuscaloosa forecast for Monday, June 11, 2012 was not good. Thunderstorms were predicted and threatened to wash out the Nicholas Katzenbach Memorial Service sponsored by the Mallet Assembly, an honors program at the University of Alabama. An alternate location indoors was identified, but it wasn’t needed. At 6:30 p.m., as the memorial service got underway, the hot Alabama sun beat down on the crowd gathered for the ceremony outside Foster Auditorium, the site of the historic confrontation between Governor George Wallace and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach exactly 49 years ago.

Marina Roberts, the Mallet Assembly President and brain child of the event, opened the memorial. She recounted how a few short weeks ago she didn’t even know who Nicholas Katzenbach was. It was Mallet Faculty Advisor, Professor Billy Field, who told Marina about this remarkable man after Katzenbach passed on May 8, 2012. The more Marina learned about Katzenbach, the more Marina wanted to do something to honor his life and the role he played in the integration of the University of Alabama.

“When we think of the infamous stand in the schoolhouse door, too often I think we forget that George Wallace was not the only man standing up for something that day,” said Roberts. “I find it a little sad that we remember this moment with an emphasis on the governor playing into the prejudice of his constituents, and not on the magnificent effort made by common people to work with one another, to tear down the barriers that impede them, to empower each other, to open doors and to walk through them. For me, this is why we must remember Nicholas Katzenbach – there will always be impediments to progress and human equality, but it is imperative that we recognize our own power in these situations to push against these obstacles and to overcome them.”

The next speaker was another student, Jonathan Thompson, who gave an equally eloquent speech on the importance of Nicholas Katzenbach, Vivian Malone, James Hood, and the freedoms we enjoy today.

June 11, 1963 – Stand in the School House Door

He was followed by University of Alabama Law Professor Bryan Fair who provided a recap of Katzenbach’s life before, during, and, after the Wallace confrontation and what Katzenbach meant to him. “I acknowledge and understand that I stand on his shoulders,” said Fair, “knowing that his fight against the tyranny of segregation paved the way for me and others to join a previously all-white faculty and staff. I believe the University of Alabama is a better place today because Katzenbach and others faced down segregation.” And that sentiment was a theme carried throughout the program.

Poetry read by local author Jennifer Horne, and civil rights anthems sung by a local choral group were moving touches, especially if you heard their beautiful voices. The choral group was led by Director Willie Williams, who shared how on the day he earned his Master’s degree at the University of Alabama, there was one thing he needed to do after graduation, and that was to stand in the school house door which paved the way for him and countless others.

Mallet faculty advisory Billy Field also recounted personal experiences from his Alabama childhood in the 1960s. He described the prejudices his family experienced when they drove across the country with Alabama license plates in the summer of 1963. Based on that experience Field learned to tell people he was from Florida rather than his sweet home of Alabama. Stories like that brought history alive and helped provide the backdrop of the sweeping changes that resulted from the ciil rights movement.

Two statements were also read at the memorial. The first from Attorney General Eric Holder, whose future sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, was one of the two students who integrated the university. “For me, for my colleagues across the Department of Justice, and for students across this campus and around the country, Nicholas Katzenbach’s example continues to serve as a source of inspiration.  And I am grateful for your efforts both to honor his achievements and to build upon the work that defined his life and distinguished his service to our Nation.”

The second statement was from the Katzenbach family who shared how important their father’s work at the Justice Department was to him and to the nation. “Our father always had a special place in his heart for the University of Alabama. Back in the 60’s, when the nation struggled with the turmoil of integration, he, and the rest of the men and women at the Department of Justice, knew that real equality could only be attained when the best of the colleges and universities throughout the South opened their admissions to Americans of all races. He and his colleagues understood that education did more than create opportunities. It established a commonality of purpose and a dedication to achievement … Our father took great pride in fighting for his country, fighting for justice and fighting for opportunity and aspirations for all Americans. At a time now, when we can all see so many struggles continuing even in this modern world, he believed it was always important to remember how far we have come on our journey together, and how far yet remains to be traveled.”

Vivian Malone               Malone-Hood Plaza

I was the concluding speaker and shared my experiences of my first visit to the University of Alabama. Exactly five years earlier on June 11, 2007, I marked the 44th anniversary of the stand in the schoolhouse door. Back then I was the only one there in contrast to today. The air was swampy, the building deserted, and the crowds gone. The only reminder of the segregationist ghosts of yesterday was a plaque denoting this place, Foster Auditorium, as the “Site of the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.”

In the five short years since my previous visit, the area outside Foster Auditorium has been transformed into the Malone-Hood Plaza, dedicated in 2010. In the center is the Autherine Lucy clock tower recognizing her efforts, albeit unsuccessfully, to integrate the university in 1956.  The other big change is that Foster Auditorium is no longer a dilapidated building. It too, has undergone a massive renovation and now houses a state of the art basketball court. And in the lobby, the ghosts of history’s past have since come alive with an interactive touch screen about the integration of the university and the key players.

James Hood
Malone-Hood Plaza

While much has changed on campus in the last five years, not to mention the last 49 years, the memorial service itself demonstrated that one person can make a difference.  We saw that with Vivian Malone, with James Hood, and with Nicholas Katzenbach.  And we saw that with Marina Roberts who a few weeks ago didn’t even know who Nicholas Katzenbach was, yet learned about his mark on her university, state, and nation, and organized a fitting tribute to commemorate Katzenbach’s life.

The service ended with a moment of silence and then the playing of Taps by Brittany Hendricks in honor of Katzenbach’s WWII service and quest for freedom.

Katzenbach made a difference not just here, but through the fabric of our society and it was his passion for justice and the enforcement of the law that helped make the dreams of a many a reality.

——

As a footnote, the storm managed to stay away, but just as the program wrapped up, the winds kicked up, the sky turned ominous, and the heavens let loose. How the university managed to remove all those chairs in seconds I have no idea. In a matter of minutes, winds were whipping, branches down, and the rain cometh. Mother nature somehow managed to cooperate and kept the storm at bay until the ceremony ended. It is under this dark cloud that Taps was played, a solemn end.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by travisploeger on June 14, 2012 at 9:36 am

    What a wonderful account.

    Reply

  2. Beautiful. What a fitting tribute to a wonderful man. So glad you made it down to Alabama!

    Reply

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