Mississippi and Mr. Nicholas Katzenbach; looking for peace in belly of the beast

Mr. Nicholas Katzenbach, dead at 90, an attorney general in the Lyndon Johnson administration who tackled the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam War strategy, Segregation and … (often) Mississippi
Susan Klopfer
Mississippi civil rights author
Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, left, a lawyer who was the Kennedy administration’s resilient representative during confrontations over civil rights and later served under Lyndon Johnson as attorney general and undersecretary of state, died overnight Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at his home in Skillman, N.J. He was 90.

It was a clear, sunny afternoon at the Okatibbee Baptist Church Cemetery just outside of Meridian, Miss. when back on June 2, 2007 I met Nicholas Katzenbach.

An earlier service took place at First Union Missionary Baptist Church in Meridian honoring Fannie Lee Chaney, the same church that held the funeral service for her son, James, some 43 years earlier, and also in the month of June. 

Mr. Nicholas Katzenbach, former U.S. attorney general and undersecretary of state, spoke briefly at Mrs. Chaney’s funeral and then several hours later, she was buried next to her son in a quiet cemetery on a small hill, amidst pine trees.

Katzenbach was an old man by this time, perhaps 85, traipsing through the cemetery wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and tie, and still looking very much like an important government official; he was bent over somewhat as we all walked the short distance to Mrs. Chaney’s and James’s grave sites.

This former U.S. Attorney General was walking alone and I caught up for a moment to offer, “ You are truly one of my heroes, and I just want to thank you for all that you have done for this country and for being here today.” He gave me a tired smile and said, “You’re welcome” as we kept walking to the site where we all said a prayer and shared stories on a sad summer afternoon.

Back in the summer of 1964, Mrs. Chaney’s 21- year-old son was involved with CORE’s (Congress of Racial Equality) Freedom Summer campaign, and on June 21, he, along with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, went to the small community of Longdale to visit Mt. Zion Methodist Church, a building that had been earlier fire-bombed by the Ku Klux Klan because it was going to be used as a Freedom School for special summer classes for children and adults.

In the afternoon, on the way back to their Meridian office, all three men were arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. After they were later released from the Neshoba jail, they were stopped again on a rural road where a white mob shot them dead and buried them in a earthen dam. James, the only African American among the three, was brutally beaten before he was killed.

“I would not be surprised if they’d been murdered, Mr. President.” Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach told President Lyndon B. Johnson… (Day in the Life of LBJ: Mississippi Burning)

When Attorney General Robert Kennedy heard these three young civil rights volunteers were missing, he ordered the FBI to go to Mississippi, and on Aug. 4, the young men’s bodies were found in an earthen dam at Old Jolly Farm. The case was the basis of the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning,” (a popular but not accurate account of what actually took place).

Years later, Mississippi prosecutors re-started their investigation of the slayings, and Mrs. Chaney testified in June 2005 at the Philadelphia, Mississippi, trial of reputed Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen. Then aged 82, she stated that her son James had gone to join the other two in delivering books, and never came back.

Killen, an ordained Baptist minister, was convicted on three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005 – exactly 41 years after the deaths. He appealed, but his sentence of three times 20 years in prison was upheld on January 12, 2007, by the 
Mississippi Supreme Court,  reported Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson, Miss. Clarion Ledger.

I really do not know whether Mr. Katzenbach was in the small caravan that drove into central Mississippi’s Neshoba County, close to the site where James and two other young men were actually murdered.

I hope that he went back home to New Jersey and away from Mississippi – at least I do not remember seeing him as the dozen or so of us walked around the site late that afternoon, close to where the young men’s car was deserted those many years ago.

I remember the knee-high grass and wild flowers that were in bloom, green and purple – pink and yellow flowers, making our observation of this small but evil place a little easier to stomach.

After a twenty minutes or so, we returned to our cars and began the drive back to Meridian, about 40 miles southeast on MS 19, when two sizeable pick-up trucks filled with a half-dozen unshaven and dirty men sped onto the asphalt from a dirt road, driving to the to the front of the caravan and screeching around, bringing our cars to a halt.

Several of these “men”  jumped from their trucks swinging baseball bats and started waving them at the lead driver’s car windows, while screaming racist words. At least one swing connected with a windshield. It was an amazing thing  to see this happening in the year 2007, in the heart of Neshoba County – where not a lot had really changed since 1964 or before then.

Mississippi. Before and After Murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney

MISSISSIPPI WAS ONE of the most potentially deadly spots for any civil rights reformer to appear. The Civil War brought death and destruction to this state, worse than other Southern states and this knowledge remains ingrained in many Mississipians’ collective consciousness. For civil rights atrocities, this state has been the belly of the beast.

My friend and Mississippi civil rights author, former Tougaloo College sociology professor, Hunter Bear, (Hunter Gray/Dr. John R Salter, Jr.) lost his teaching job in Jackson, was accused of being a Communist in this state, and nearly lost his life there, in the mid 1960s for his civil rights activities.

This sociologist confirms the pressure put on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whenever he came into Mississippi, and remembers telephoning Dr. King, asking him to come to Jackson in June of 1963 shortly after his friend and colleague Medgar Evers was killed in front of his home. 

Mississippi’s well-known NAACP leader’s wife and children were waiting for him to leave his car and come inside the house, after a late night planning meeting at his church, when he was gunned down.

“The rapidly growing protest demonstrations were being bloodily suppressed, and I asked him to come to Jackson for Medgar’s funeral on June 15. He readily agreed to do so. We picked him up and several key staff of his – Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker and others – at the police-drenched Jackson airport.

“It was already very hot and the temperature was to go, that day, to 102 super-humid degrees. Martin King and Dr. Abernathy rode in my car – along with Bill Kunstler – and the others were brought by Ed King (a Mississippi civil rights activist and Tougaloo chaplain, not related to Martin Luther King).

Hunter Bear remembers King’s calmness in the face of “…a very grudging police escort from the city’s all-white police department. The Jackson setting could not have been more lethally dangerous for all of us – but Dr. King visited easily and casually with me, and I with him, as we traveled the very dangerous several miles to the Negro Masonic Temple on Lynch Street.”

Evers’ funeral was huge, “several thousand people, inside and out” and afterwards, ” . . . six thousand of us marched the two miles or so from the Temple to the Collins Funeral Home on Farish Street. It was the first “legal” civil rights demonstration in Mississippi’s hate-filled, sanguinary history.”

In 1966 a state chapter of the Deacons of Defense, a black group concerned with protection of the lives of African Americans, worried for King’s safety and provided him with armed security during events in Jackson and McComb, and for the James Meredith march held that summer.

It was a good call by the Deacons, since Meredith was shot June 6 near the small town of Hernando, a day before the primary election, while walking from Memphis to Jackson to encourage black people to register and vote.

After Medgar Evers Murdered, James Meredith Shot…

Meredith, four years earlier the first black student to enroll and attend the University of Mississippi, undertook his 220-mile March Against Fear to challenge white supremacy and inspire black Mississippians to vote. This was an unusual move for Meredith, who was home from his first year at Columbia University’s law school; he rarely involved himself publicly in civil rights demonstrations.

(It was Katzenbach, as deputy U.S. attorney general, who earlier was charged with enrolling Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Not an easy job, by any means.)

After Meredith was wounded and taken to a Memphis hospital, King and other civil rights leaders continued the protest. The march moved on southward through the Delta to Belzoni, where Rev. George Lee had been violently killed by a shotgun blast to his face eleven years earlier (and one month before Emmett Till was murdered) and on through several other small cotton towns.

Then King split off and left for Philadelphia to hold a service on the anniversary of the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; King and others were attacked with clubs while police and Justice Department observers and FBI agents looked on, reported civil rights marchers who were also beaten.

Meanwhile in Canton, a small town north of Jackson, officials refused to allow marchers to pitch tents on the town’s black school ground. The crowd numbered about 3,500 people and was faced off by sixty-one state troopers lined up in full battle gear, carrying a mass of weapons. The troopers fired tear gas into the crowd and then waded in with guns and nightsticks.

The riot in Canton was  reported as equal in violence and bloodshed as the assault on Selma, Alabama, marchers one year earlier. After Selma, President Lyndon Johnson federalized the National Guard to protect the demonstrators marching to Montgomery, but his administration’s response to Canton was different.

By then, Johnson’s Attorney General, Katzenbach told reporters he “regretted” the use of tear gas against the marchers, for “it always makes the situation more difficult.” But Katzenbach refused to condemn the police action and asserted the whole matter was taken under investigation.

Meredith’s march ended quietly as Dr. King rejoined marchers and led a group to Tougaloo College, where 9,000 supporters attended a mass rally. On Sunday, June 26, the march ended at the capital grounds in Jackson as nearly 15,000 people drew together to hear the civil rights leader declare the march and rally to go down in history “as the greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the state of Mississippi.”

It might be fair to ask, from a revisionist viewpoint, if Katzenbach really understood Mississippi at its worst – but most certainly he did, as vouched for by his quiet presence at Mrs. Chaney’s funeral. Mississippi certainly tried to “understand” him, as he was the subjects of hundreds of secret Sovereignty Commission files. 

Here is a Katzenbach-SovComm file that is particularly interesting, relating to the FBI agents and their testimony in Neshoba County.

In Mississippi, the pain remains severe and change is slow – as in Florida and in so many other parts of this country that refuse to acknowledge their own brutal civil rights history.

So Peace be with you, Mr. Katzenbach. And also with you – Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Dr. King, and so many other brave civil rights warriors whose names remain lost in the dust of time.
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Link to NYT article: includes how he helped get the Civil Rights Act passed