05/17/2012 03:14 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2012

"Unsung Hero": Alabama Students Discover Nicholas Katzenbach

A group of students at the University of Alabama is planning a memorial event in June to honor Nicholas Katzenbach who died on May 8th at age 90. Katzenbach, a New Jersey native, devoted eight years of his life to government service, including appointment as Robert Kennedy's deputy attorney general and then as attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson.

During that time, he tackled many tough challenges. He "advised President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, negotiated the release of Cuban prisoners captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion," and "defended Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War before Congress."

But the Alabama students want to commemorate what may have been his "tensest moment." On June 11, 1963, Katzenbach was dispatched by President Kennedy to confront Alabama's feisty segregationist governor George C. Wallace as he stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium on the Tuscaloosa campus.

In his inaugural address five months earlier, Wallace, a short man who bore a resemblance to the late actor Edward G. Robinson, had heralded "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" and vowed to prevent desegregation of the institution. The governor, a former judge and high school boxing champ, stood "at the schoolhouse door" to block the admission of the university's first African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood.

In front of television cameras and accompanied by a U.S. Marshall and members of the Alabama National Guard, the 6-foot-2-inch Katzenbach approached the 5-foot-6-inch Wallace in the sweltering heat. The man from Washington had left the two black students in the car to avoid further inflaming the scene. As Katzenbach walked toward him, Wallace, standing behind a lectern, held up his hand and shouted, "Stop."

Katzenbach then "read a presidential proclamation ordering that the students be admitted." He handed the document to Wallace and asked him to step aside. Before complying, Wallace read a long statement lambasting the federal government for "suppression of rights." About four hours later, Katzenbach escorted Malone and Hood into the auditorium to enroll.

Despite the outcome, it was a shameful day for my home state -- one of many shameful days during that era. A decade later I walked through that same door to enroll in the still-barely-desegregated university where my mother had been part of the all-white student body 40 years earlier. I was continuing a legacy that for my family was proud in many ways. My mother and her brother had been among the first in their rural community to go to college and they took great pride in their University of Alabama degrees. But I could never pass Foster Auditorium without seeing that dreadful 1963 scene again in my mind and feeling embarrassed.

Now, almost 50 years later, some current students, led by anthropology and business major Marina Roberts, are organizing a tribute to the man whom many Alabamians saw as the enemy, a representative of a meddling federal government, one of the "pointy-headed bureaucrats" Wallace liked to criticize. The students are hoping to hold the event in Foster Auditorium, on the 49th anniversary of the fateful day.

Roberts had never heard of Katzenbach until his death was reported in the media. "That's a shame," she says, "especially since I was well aware of George Wallace." She says Katzenbach has been overlooked at the university, "an unsung hero who stood his ground in the face of difficult opposition in order to bring equality and progress to the university and the state." (She might add "and the nation," because the following year, as attorney general, Katzenbach successfully defended the 1964 Civil Rights Act before the Supreme Court, winning unanimous approval.)

As word about the memorial spreads across the stately campus and in the surrounding community, more people are stepping forward to participate, to read a poem, sing a song or otherwise recognize Katzenbach for his bravery and diplomacy, to express gratitude for his part in keeping that day as peaceful as it was.

Yet not everyone shares the students' sentiment nor fully embraces the progress that has been made toward diversity and equality. In moving forward with the event anyway, Roberts and the others are reflecting the courage and fairness of the man they honor.