thumbnail of American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Nicholas Katzenbach, 2 of 3
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
[Test Tone Ends][Katzenbach]: -one was Thurgood Marshall, and Jack Greenberg later when Thurgood went on to court. Trying to get the constitutional rights established in court, and that was a very important and effective part of it in getting the court to speak. The other piece of it, was what was done by other leaders, particularly, perhaps, by Dr. King and by James Forman, in particular, and there were others, and they were exercising rights in a different way. They were exercise- demonstrating rights, and demonstrating what happened when you tried to exercise those rights. Because the legal process was intolerably slow, and it was obvious to them that legislation was going to be needed, it would have to come about at some time. [Interviewer]: Mhm- mhm. Um, I want you to talk a little bit about um, durin- wh- while we were off, we talked a little bit about
Governor Patterson, um, talk about Governor Patterson's support- um, Governor Patterson of [Katzenbach]: Well Governor Patterson had been a big supporter of President Kennedy in- in the uh, Democratic Convention and helping Kennedy get the nomination but when he came- when Kennedy thought 'oh maybe he'll cut a little bit of slack on- helping, to prevent these demonstrations in the South.' No way uh, and you couldn't get any southern governor or for that matter most- any southern senator. To cut you any slack at all in terms of civil rights. [Interviewer]: Um- [Camera Operator]: ?inaudible? could you have him repeat that? [Interviewer]: Yeah, I'm sorry. I'm going to need to ask you to repeat that because we weren't- I- I- s- talked over you. So talk about the importance of- g- uh. Why was Governor- why, I guess you could be a little more detailed. Why was Governor Patterson's support, um, uh, important to Kennedy?
[Katzenbach]: Governor Patterson's support was important to Kennedy because, to get the votes for the nomination, President Kennedy needed- get the votes from the southern states. Uh- and he got those votes- I don't think, my recollection is that they all voted for him, uh, eventually, uh. And that was important in getting the nomination, it didn't mean that President Kennedy had to adopt their view of civil rights, or that he even winked and said 'oh- don't do anything about it.' He didn't have to do that. But what it d- did mean that among the candidates, the various candidates, they selected Kennedy, I think, because they thought, that he would certainly be less damaging than Humphrey, in their view and, uh, that, uh, perhaps they could go on living with civil rights, the way white southerners had- lived with
discrimination against blacks all their lifetime. [Interviewer]: When you were say- Kennedy would be damin- damaging than Humphrey, what do you mean? ?inaudible? [Katzenbach]: Humphrey was more outspoken on civil rights, perhaps, than Kennedy was. Not really so much in the election; they were probably about the same, uh, And in the- in th- in the, uh, fight up to the election but h- y- Humphrey had done this for years before, and had a long, long record of being very pro civil rights. [Interviewer]: Mhm, mkay- can you cut for a minute? [Camera Operator]: Sure. [Interviewer]: Lets cut for a minute- -actually, um it says, "The Democratic Party had been schizophrenic about race for at least two decades," alright? Y- [Katzenbach]: Yes. [Interviewer]: You tell me. [Katzenbach]: The Democratic Party, for at least 2 decades, had been the party of the solid south where Democrats controlled and where civil rights were
b- 'eally denied in what I've said is really an apartheid society. At the same time, it was the leader in terms of police beaches an- declarations on civil rights, far more leadership, far more pro civil rights, than the Republican Party. And it's an odd thing that, this was the case. I think the only reason it really was the case, is that it was extremely important to the southerners to keep their Democratic affiliations. 'Cause that kept their seniority, and kept there positions of importance. Primarily chairmanships in the senate, an- the house. So they remained democr- a- fact I went- 'member once. Visiting, with, uh, uh, uh, Senator, uh, oh, Thurgood? a- Senator, from South Carolina, the ol'- he was old- be- became one the a-
Talmadge- not Talmadge- no. Anyhow- me changed it- [Interviewer]: Ok. [Katzenbach]: I remember once in terms of visiting with one of the most outspoken anti civil rights senators in the South, and saying- and he was- said to me, "I don't understand." He said "I'm a Democrat, I've always been a Democrat. I've always voted with the Democratic party to organize the senate." And that was true; that's the only vote he ever made was the Democratic Party, rest of the time he voted with Republicans on much more conservative views, and that was one of the problems which the democrats' lived with an- the reason I said schizophrenic- 'cause they were. [Interviewer]: One of the things that- that- that Kennedy said, John Kennedy said was that. He could solve the housing problem through- through- the struggle of a pen. That was kind of a famous statement, and, um, do think he was a little bit naïve on- on- on- civil rights or do you think he actually believed that?
[Katzenbach]: I think he believed he could solve the housing problem in ?bronze? with the stroke of a pen. Because somebody told them he could, and he wasn't a lawyer, and it was really that was stretching, in my view, and I was perhaps responsible for in many respects for that not happening, because I did not believe that the president of united states without congressional legislation had the power to do that- or the power which it- really was saying solving it because I can solve it through the fact that I forbid any of the national banks from loaning money or giving money on mortgages. If there's any refusal to sell to blacks, and, uh, that's a pretty big step to take just alone with the executive power. [Interviewer]: Okay I want to get back to- [Katzenbach]: And I don't think it would have solved the housing problem, in any event,
because I don't think at that point in this country there were a huge number of blacks seeking housing in white communities. [Interviewer]: Um, I want to get back to the, to the Freedom Rides in- in- in particular. Um, so th- so the Freedom Rides starts, they start to have problems an- things start to get worse, um. Were you in on the decision to send, uh, Seigenthaler to Birmingham? Wh- why- [Katzenbach]: Send? [Interviewer]: Seigenthaler to Birmingham? Why was this- [Katzenbach]: No well 'Bobby' just wanted somebody there to observe. To see what was going on, somebody that he could trust 'cause he didn't trust the Bureau. So he sent uh, John Seigenthaler down then he- he sent a bunch of marshall's down with Byron White and Bill Orrick was head of the Civil Division. But- they- you know the Freedom Riders,
were in many ways a frustration because we were criticized in the Department for not protecting them and that's-- it's understandable they were, you know, they're, constitutionally, they were entitled to this kind of protection from somebody, an- if the state didn't do it. It was up to the federal government to do it. Th- that's quite understandable, our frustration was, we didn't see what good it was gonna do. We could f- we could get in late, the army would always be late because of the law- you got to find that, they were going to protect the people f- [Katzenbach chuckling][Katzenbach]: -from the mob, and if then you have to send the army in, and so it meant that they'd get in there late. It would be confrontation with the local authorities, and the result would be probably not helping people to not get injured very much. And just the situation where you had to send the army- I guess you had to send buses of army around with the buses of Freedom Riders, that's about the only way you could do it. [Interviewer]: Mhm, um, Mr. Katzenbach if you could just explain to me, um, again, I know you kinda mentioned it, but in a much longer answer. If you could men- if you could talk to me about why
you couldn't send the army- d- you know I mean? Jus- gimme that an- so y- you know that the army- you can't really send the army in, until after it's proven that they can't be protected any other way. [Katzenbach]: Alright. The difficulty from the federal government's point of view is that, they can protect people with lawsuits, which may take a couple of years to do. The only other means they have to protect people, is really the army. There's no federal law enforcement in this country, bu- like your state police, or your local police, you don't have that. We don't have a police force of that kind, and, if we sent the army in, there was always the problem-- two problems. First, they were doing the job that should be done by the local police, in a sense relieving them of the responsibility of following
the law, and secondly, what happened when you took them out? If you took 'em out, you're right back on square one. [Interviewer]: But also I wanted to get at- y- if I understand what you're saying is that the army can't be sent in until th- y- know. [Katzenbach]: The ar- army can't be used under the law. You can't use the army, unless the governor of the state is unable, or unwilling to preserve law and order. Those aren't the exact words but that's approximately right. And in order- he's always going to be able to do it. So you have to show that he's unwilling to do it. And none of the governors were unwilling to, there's- always would say. 'Oh no- no, we're perfectly happy, we'll preserve law an- order.' An- their idea of preserving order was always to arrest the blacks. You never tried to protect the blacks from the whites, just arrested the blacks- [Faint sound off screen][Camera Operator]: We can hear you, from the- [Interviewer]: Yuh-huh, you're on the phone, were tryin- to shoot here. [Woman off screen]: -Forgot its your house- [Interviewer]: An so- yeah as small as you can make it
jus- y- know 'cause I think that's one of the questions that- that we have- [Katzenbach]: Yeah. [Interviewer]: -when we talk about the Freedom Riders was, you know, 'Why didn't the government just send in the army?' [Katzenbach]: Uh, th- I think the difficulty f- from the government's point of view has always been. The use of troops, one, that you can't use them unless you can show that the governor- the state is unable or unwilling to preserve order. He's always able to, an- he always indicated a willingness to do it. The willingness was usually to arrest the blacks. Not to do anything terms of preserving them, an- the exercise of their constitutional rights. That's what he- that's what happened with the Freedom Riders, when they weren't beaten up by the mob, they were- they were, uh, simply arrested as they were- when they went to Mississippi. [Interviewer]: Um, there's a decision- I want you to go on back to Seigenthaler, just keep it if you can o- on Seigenthaler.
Why did- w- what was the thinking o- of- of 'Bobby' Kennedy in sending Seigenthaler t- to Louisianna? [Katzenbach]: I don't know if it- if 'Bobbys' thinking it was who Seigenthaler was, other than he wanted somebody in whom he had total confidence to take a look at what was going on, and I think he thought, perhaps, that just the presence of his assistant, e- there would be a factor in terms of deterring violence. But it wasn't. [Papers Rustling][Interviewer]: Um, after- [Papers Rustling][Interviewer]: -uh, Anniston, an- um. and uh, y- know the bus burns an- the- an- those riots- [Katzenbach]: Yes. [Interviewer]: -in Birmingham, um. You guys were trying to get Patterson to agree, w- what was Patterson's reaction?
[Katzenbach]: Patterson just- he just wasn't gonna agree to anything. In fact, he wasn't even willing to talk to the president, or the attorney general about anything of this. And it was obvious that- that was going to happen. That there would be arrests made at the minimum, I talked with uh- Senator Eastland from Mississippi about it. senator Eastland said that the only thing that could happen, would be the arrests. That was the- there wouldn't be anybody beaten up, wouldn't be anybody hurt, everybody would be arrested. That's what would happen. [Interviewer]: If we could um, uh, Mr. Katzenbach, I- I- I'd like to just talk about those two things separately? Y- know because in some ways- [Katzenbach]: Yeah. [Interviewer]: -the film is going to be y- know chronological y- know what I mean? [Katzenbach]: Ok, yeah. [Interviewer]: So- so like right now we- we're in Alabama, an- talk to me about- again I jus- wanna ask you again ab- about Pattersons Ref-
how do you refuse to talk to the attorney general an- the president of the United States? You said he wouldn't talk. So- so- there's this violence in Alabama- [Katzenbach]: We have the violence in- we have the violence in Birmingham, and, uh, Dr. King's come up to the church to preach, And, uh, we h- have had some marshals there, uh. at the naval base, I think, and under Byron White, Byron White bought them- got them into the church, surrounded the church with them so there was a confrontation between the marshals and the guard under General Graham and the Alabama Highway Patrol under Floyd Mann. An- 'Bill' Orrick who was working with Byron White, he was the assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Division, tried to negotiate a peace, it was- he said afterwards. 'It was like to negotiating
with the Russians.' And he was negotiating with General Graham an- I think probably Floyd Mann was the big help in terms of finally getting Graham to agree that the- u- the- there would be no harming of the blacks returning home out of the church, that the mob would be- would be kept back. An- that- that they could all go home safely. And so that's what happened, but that's not very satisfactory. Certainly not to the civil rights leaders, and not very satisfactory to the Department of Justice. Very happy- happy they weren't hurt, but that's not a vindication of constitutional rights. [Interviewer]: I think th- actually though before- before the, uh, the siege at the church, th- in Montgomery um, when Kennedy was trying to talk to Patterson, I jus- want to go back to that. [Katzenbach]: Yeah. [Interviewer]: What happened when- when Kennedy was an- now I'm tryin to be- [Katzenbach]: -ell Kennedy. Yeah. The Kennedys tried to talk to Governor Patterson, Pater- just simply refused take
the calls, jus- yeah, outrageous.. President of the United States is calling, and you say sorry 'I'm busy.' [Interviewer]: Why? Why? [Katzenbach]: Well, just simply because he didn't want to be in the position of saying what it was- he was- was, or was or was not going to do. And I think he just sort of, 'I'll leave it up to them. They want to bring in the troops? They'll bring in the troops, an- then I'll protest. 'There was no reason to bring in the troops, I was perfectly capable of preserving order here. They would bring in troops for no reason other than punishment of the South.' That kind of argument. [Interviewer]: So tell me that again, I jus- wanna get this straight, so Kennedy, president of the United States calls Patterson, what happens? [Katzenbach]: Well, Patterson- when he tried to call Patterson, Patterson just wouldn't take the call. There was no conversation at all as I recall. [Interviewer]: Um, how
did you hear about, um- Seigenthaler is beaten in- in Birmingham? [Katzenbach]: Yes. [Interviewer]: How did you hear about that? Do you remember how you first heard- or what you first heard 'bout Seigenthaler, where you were? [Katzenbach]: I don't remember when I first heard Seigenthaler'd been beaten up. I heard about it afterwards, and I don't remember when I first heard- I know- I knew he had been beaten up and he was in the hospital, and I heard that fairly early, but I didn't know what the circumstances were. [Interviewer]: Umm, you said earlier that- [papers rustling][Interviewer]: -something about the FBI. [papers rustling][Interviewer]: That- you know that FBI- I forgot wh- y- you said- 'couldn't be trusted'? What was the FBI like at that point? [Katzenbach]: [Katzenbach]: Well the FBI, the FBI has an investigative force, it's not a police force. In the sense that you think of the local police, or even the state
police- well they have an investigative function, they have a law and order function, as well. The- the FBI has never had a law and order function- it's always just been investigative, and they just weren't doing- apart from the fact that they weren't very pro civil rights, Hoover, at least, was not very pro civil rights, Much of their work is working with local police on investigations of crimes- other than crimes connected with civil rights, and they were were very reluctant to get into any kinda confrontations with the civil rights. Our intelligence through the FBI was really lousy and - it's lousy because they were getting their information from the local police. And it was almost as - as simple as that, the FBI- a- the short answer is the FBI was no help help at all. [Papers rustling]
[Interviewer]: Um, at Montgomery- as Montgomery starts to spin outta control an- and uh, y- know 'Bo'- 'Bobby' Kennedy in my own opinion just wanted the riots called off. Wh- what what did you guys want to happen? [offscreen murmuring][camera operator]: Can you hold on 1 second. [Interviewer]: Sure. [Camera Operator]: She's going out the door. [distant footsteps going through doorway][Camera Operator]: She looks like she's going out the door. [Door closes][Interviewer]: Yeah, she's goin- out. [Katzenbach]: I think- [Interviewer]: Hold on on second. Sorry there's she's just goin- in an out of the door here. Ok. Alright. [Katzenbach]: Uh- at Montgomery, 'Bobby' Kennedy wanted the- wanted to help the freedom riders continue and the Greyhound Company refused to provide a bus, as I recall it, uh, because they were concerned about the protection of the bus an- the driver and so forth, an- 'Bobby' was on the phone to- them, insisting that the people had a right to travel in insisting that they provide a bus. He was actually
fairly funny because, he kept referring to whoever was on the other end of the line as. 'Mr. Grand.' [Katzenbach Laughing] [Katzenbach]: He kept saying- 'Well you just tell 'Mr. Grand' he's gonna have to provide a bus.' But- the hope I think was that through a- f- highway patrol, Floyd Mann that th- in Alabama that they would provide protection, an he did- on the highways but he didn't in- it came to the city. It didn't help. [Interviewer]: Was it clear to you all that- that's what Floyd Mann was saying? I never un- quite understood what- was it clear to- to- to you in Washington that what Floyd Mann was saying was. 'I can get you to Montgomery, but after that you're on your own.' [Katzenbach]: I think it was absolutely clear that he was saying- Floyd Mann was saying. I'll put it a little differently, but he was saying essentially. 'I can get you, and I can protect people to the borders of the city. I don't have jurisdiction beyond that.
So after that it's up to the state, the sheriff, and the local police. [Interviewer]: And what did you think- what those state and local police were gonna do? [Katzenbach]: We thought the chances the local state and local police, was that they'd arrest the Freedom Riders. I think- what we did not think. Was that they would let a mob beat up the freedom riders Uh- Ih-. Usually a- a- a police force may do it itself if it can, say you're violating the law. As Sheriff Clarke often did, an others others. But you don't very often have police officers stand around and let hooligans beat other people up. And I don't think we expected that. [papers rustling][Interviewer]: Um. What's your understanding of what happened to Seigenthaler in Montgomery?
[Katzenbach]: My understanding of what happened to Seigenthaler in Montgomery is that he was trying to help a- a white girl who had been a Freedom Rider escape from the mob, and that he was beaten up in the process. All of which was carefully photographed by the FBI. [Interviewer]: Have you ever seen those photographs? [Katzenbach]: I don't recall, I may have. [Interviewer]: So- so [Katzenbach]: -they had a lot of I woln't say it's not quite defense of the FBI, but the photographs they took were very useful in court proceedings. [Interviewer]: So when Seigenthaler is- is being beat up the the FBI is there an- what are they doing? [Camera Operator]: That mic is in shot. [boom mic moving][Interviewer]: Go 'head. So when Te- Seigenthalers being beat up- I just wanna get clear that the FBI is standing around watching taking photographs. [Katzenbach]: Yes an FBI agent was observing it and taking pictures that's true. Whether that FBI agent could have stopped the mob any better than John Seigenthaler I don't know. [Interviewer]: Uh, I'm gonna start that over again 'cause I think we got- kinda got lost in- in the stuff.
Seigenthaler's getting beat up. What's the FBI doing? What- how do they do? [Katzenbach]: -ight. Seigenthaler was injured, in the process of trying to rescue a white girl who had been a Freedom Rider from a lot of vicious beating by the mob. That was all photographed by an FBI agent. Whether the FBI agent could've helped Seigenthaler, who was beaten up in the process, I simply don't know. [Interviewer]: But he didn't? [Katzenbach]: But he didn't. He didn't make any effort to, and he did not. [Interviewer]: Ok lets cut for a second. [Camera Operator]: Sure. [Interviewer]: Lemme change things- -er an 'Bobby' wanted to talk to them. [Katzenbach]: 'Bobby' talked to Dr. King in the church aft- after the marshals had arrived. An- the blacks were sort of trapped in the church, they couldn't leave
without being arrested, uh and the marshals were there to protect them an- 'Bobby' talked to him an- uh, 2- or 3- I think- 2- 3- 4 times. Really saying what we were trying to do an eventually of uh- took a little doing. Eventually they can convince Dr. King is that the best that he can now hope for would be that- the people would be let outa the church an- not arrested. And get home, we were sure we could accomplish that, uh, and at that Dr. King could go back- back home to Atlanta. [Interviewer]: What do you mean you 'weren't sure you could accomplish that'? [Katzenbach]: All I mean by that is that we couldn't accomplish anything- that- unless- the- state forces, were to agree to it. We could accomplish it in 24 hours or 48 hours by mobilizing the army,
moving the army into Mont- Birmingham, but that would take quite a number of hours, and, uh, If it was- we did it because they refused to do things that could cause quite unnecessary unhappy situation. By which I mean is, there could be- there could be a fair amount of rioting as a result of that. [Interviewer]: So at that point, um, the people inside the church were trapped inside? [Katzenbach]: Yeah. Yes. [Interviewer]: Talk to me about that night they wanted to s- [Katzenbach]: The people were trapped inside the church because, if they went out they had t- run the risk of being arrested by- by the Birmingham police, or by the guard. [Interviewer]: Or be at up an- killed. [Katzenbach]: What? [Interviewer]: Or be at up, or killed! [Katzenbach]: Or beat up or killed, yes.
[Interviewer]: Um before- [Interviewer]: -How much of that y- you know you never could tell. Whether they would just be arrested, or whether they'd be beaten up. You just never knew. I would be inclined to think that, at that stage, after the beatings that had taken place already in Montgomery, probably there would have been arrests, but it would have been a risk. [Interviewer]: One of the things th- that- that- that I think, that- that we'd want to give the sense of too you know, in- in hindsight it's easy to say 'beat up' Y- know people were bein- beat up- but at that point, I mean there was clearly the chance- [Katzenbach]: -Oh, people were killed, they were not just beaten up, some people were actually killed by the mob, uh, and I don't know whether you've ever seen a mob, but boy- when it gets out of control, it is out of control. and anything can happen. [Interviewer]: Was it out of control then?
Want to help make this content more accessible? Correct our machine-generated transcript.
American Experience
Freedom Riders
Raw Footage
Interview with Nicholas Katzenbach, 2 of 3
Contributing Organization
WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/15-3j39020b0x).
Nicholas Katzenbach served as Deputy Attorney General from 1962 to 1965, under Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He served as Attorney General from 1965 to 1966 under President Johnson. Katzenbach assisted in drafting civil rights legislation and played an important role in fighting segregation in the South.
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
(c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
Media type
Moving Image
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Release Agent: WGBH Educational Foundation
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: barcode357560_Katzenbach_02_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1280x720.mp4 (unknown)
Duration: 0:29:18

Identifier: cpb-aacip-15-3j39020b0x.mp4 (mediainfo)
Format: video/mp4
Generation: Proxy
Duration: 00:29:25
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Nicholas Katzenbach, 2 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 15, 2021,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Nicholas Katzenbach, 2 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 15, 2021. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Nicholas Katzenbach, 2 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from