Lafayette will commemorate the 80th anniversary of Kirby Hall of Civil Rights, one of the most historic and distinctive academic buildings in America, Wednesday, Oct. 20, with an afternoon rededication ceremony featuring remarks by former U.S. attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach and an evening lecture by Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr.
The rededication, at 4:10 p.m. in Kirby Hall auditorium, will mark the history of the building and new exhibits on civil rights installed in the lobby. The exhibits include photographs and excerpts of speeches made at the building’s dedication May 29, 1930, and provide a timeline of the history of civil rights, both in America and at Lafayette. They have been developed over the last year by a working group of faculty, staff, and students under the direction of Diane Windham Shaw, special collections librarian and College archivist, and Michiko Okaya, director of Lafayette art galleries.
In addition to Katzenbach, whose father, Edward L. Katzenbach, a former attorney general of New Jersey, spoke at the dedication of Kirby Hall, speakers will include Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss; S. Dillard Kirby ’81, president of the F.M. Kirby Foundation and a great-grandson of the building’s donor, Fred Morgan Kirby; and Karen LeSage ’10, who will represent the Kirby Hall Working Group.
At 7:30 p.m. in Colton Chapel, Branch will speak on “Myths and Miracles of the King Years,” drawing on his three-volume narrative history of King’s work, America in the King Years. The talk will be followed by a reception and book-signing in Kirby Hall. Branch will lead an informal discussion on civil rights issues in America today, biographical writing, and the legacy of President Barack Obama 10 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 21, in the Gendebien Room, Skillman Library.
Branch’s talk will be the first of two major events in the College’s Lives of Liberty Lecture Series this fall. The second will feature Theodore Sorensen, speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy and bestselling biographer, speaking Wednesday, Nov. 10. The Lives of Liberty Lecture Series was inaugurated in 2007-08 during the College’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Marquis de Lafayette.
Fred Morgan Kirby, cofounder of the F.W. Woolworth Co., donated $590,000 to construct Kirby Hall of Civil Rights in 1929 as the headquarters of Lafayette’s department of government and law. Designed by Whitney Warren, the architect of Grand Central Terminal, the building was the first in America dedicated exclusively to the study of government and law.
Kirby Hall was F.M. Kirby’s second magnificent gift to Lafayette. In 1920, he gave Lafayette $100,000 to endow the first professorship in civil rights in the United States. F.M. Kirby first became involved with Lafayette in 1911, when his son, Allan Price Kirby ’15, began attending the College. F.M. Kirby began a lifetime of deep involvement and generosity to Lafayette, including serving as a trustee from 1916-40. Allan Kirby founded Lafayette’s Alumni Association and was a trustee from 1937 until his death in 1973. The Kirby family’s remarkable support of Lafayette has continued to the present.
Nicholas Katzenbach has distinguished himself as a courageous leader in government service and the fight for civil rights in America. President Kennedy appointed Katzenbach assistant attorney general in 1961 and then deputy attorney general in 1962. In February 1965, President Johnson named Katzenbach the nation’s 65th attorney general.
Katzenbach played a key role in the desegregation of the nation’s Southern universities. He was present during the 1962 riots at the University of Mississippi following the enrollment of James Meredith, the university’s first African American student. In 1963, he personally escorted James Hood and Vivian Malone, the first African American students to enroll at the University of Alabama, onto the Tuscaloosa campus.
He also played a key role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and helped draft the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited states from imposing racial barriers to voting. He twice defended the voting act’s constitutionality before the U.S. Supreme Court.
As attorney general, he ordered an end to the wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. and prohibited Alabama officials from interfering with the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. Lafayette awarded Katzenbach an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the 173rd Commencement in May 2008. The College had awarded Edward L. Katzenbach an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1928.
Branch is best known for his award-winning trilogy of books chronicling the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the history of the American civil rights movement. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History, the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction, and many other honors. The other two books in the series, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 (1998) and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (2006), were both New York Times bestsellers.
Branch’s latest book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With The President (2009), was written from many tape-recorded interviews and conversations between Branch and President Bill Clinton, most of which occurred in the White House during Clinton’s two terms in office and were not disclosed publicly until the book’s publication. Branch was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (known as a “genius grant”) in 1991 and the National Humanities Medal in 1999.