John Doar, a top Justice Department lawyer during the 1960s who was the face of the federal government during some of the most sensitive conflicts of the civil rights era, escorting the first black student into the University of Mississippi and prosecuting the notorious murders of three civil rights workers, has died. He was 92.
Doar, a Republican who later drafted the articles of impeachment against President Nixon as special counsel for the House inquiry into Watergate, died Tuesday at his New York City home of congestive heart failure, his son Burke said.
Although not well-known outside the civil rights movement, Doar was one of its pivotal figures, who believed he could not do his job from behind a desk in Washington, D.C.
He accompanied James Meredith in repeated attempts to integrate the University of Mississippi, finally succeeding in October 1962 after rioting that left two dead.
He successfully prosecuted the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three civil rights workers killed by Ku Klux Klan members in rural Neshoba County, Miss., in 1964.
In 1965, he walked 50 miles alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others as the key federal observer and guardian during one of the historic marches from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., for voting rights.
Later he won a conviction against the Ku Klux Klan member who shot Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five who had taken part in the Selma marches.
“In almost every phase of the struggle for civil rights … throughout the ‘60s, John Doar was there,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was a leader of the Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate transit when they met more than 50 years ago.
“Throughout that period people would say, ‘call John Doar if anything happens.’ Many of us had his personal telephone number,” Lewis recalled Wednesday. “If it hadn’t been for him I don’t know what would have happened to many of us.”
In a statement Tuesday, President Obama, who in 2012 awarded Doar the Presidential Medal of Freedom, called him “one of the bravest American lawyers of his or any era.”
Doar’s boldest act came in 1963, not quite midway through his seven-year stint in the Justice Department.
At the funeral of Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader who had been shot to death by a white gunman in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss., home, about 100 mourners had begun singing protest songs outside the church, violating a court order that they remain silent. Police took out their clubs, and some of the mourners threw rocks and bottles.
Bloody bedlam seemed assured until Doar raced to the middle of the street to be a human buffer in the escalating conflict.
“My name is John Doar. D-O-A-R,” he shouted. “I’m in the Justice Department in Washington. And anybody around here knows that I stand for what’s right!”
Invoking the names of Evers and other movement leaders, he maintained that violence was not the answer. “You can’t win with bricks and bottles,” he said, and urged the protesters to go home. After a few minutes they dispersed.
“My adrenaline had been pumping,” journalist Karl Fleming wrote in a 2005 memoir, recalling how he was with Doar when the lawyer jumped between the protesters and the police. “John Doar, though, had seemed as calm as if he were addressing a judge in court.... He could have been killed by someone in either camp. It was one of the bravest things I had ever seen.”
The “Marshal Dillon of the troubled South,” as one news account described Doar, played down his role in ending a riot in the making. “It seemed the only thing to do,” he later told the New York Herald Tribune.
“He was a modest man in terms of his own role, but he also felt he did what had to be done,” said Dorothy Landsberg, associate dean at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, who worked on Doar’s staff in the 1960s. “That’s what moved John Doar and why we loved and worked so hard for him.... He just led by example.”
John Michael Doar was born in Minneapolis on Dec. 3, 1921, and grew up in New Richmond, Wis., where his father practiced law. He majored in humanities at Princeton University and earned his law degree from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall in 1949.
He was a country lawyer in Wisconsin for 10 years until he accepted an offer in 1960 to be the deputy chief of the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
Troubled by what he perceived as a lack of urgency in the FBI’s response to civil rights complaints, he began to investigate cases himself. One of his first trips took him to a black church in rural Tennessee where he asked congregants how many had received eviction notices after trying to register to vote. Nearly every hand went up.
“It was a moment of shock that Doar never forgot,” Taylor Branch wrote in “Parting the Waters,” a history of the King years. “Staring into all those faces, he doubted that the drive to prevent Negro voting could be so widespread, until he collected 50 affidavits from sharecroppers who had saved their written eviction notices and were willing to testify.
“His pioneering trademark thereafter was to act partly as his own FBI agent … and the experience would make it impossible for him ever to go back to Wisconsin,” Branch wrote.
Just seven months into the job, Doar won court orders throwing out 300 evictions after convincing judges that they had been issued in an effort to repress black voter registration. His work was instrumental in the Kennedy administration’s decision to make voting rights the centerpiece of its civil rights agenda. President Johnson made him chief of the civil rights division in 1965.
Doar is credited with laying the legal groundwork for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through his investigations of the disenfranchisement of African Americans throughout the South.
In 1967 he left Washington and moved to New York, where at Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s request he headed a program to redevelop the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. He later headed the New York City Board of Education.
He revered Abraham Lincoln and kept a portrait of the 16th president in his house, his son said. Those credentials, along with his reputation as a meticulous investigator who wanted “facts, facts, facts,” led to the House Judiciary Committee’s decision to give him a central role in the Watergate investigation.
That investigation ended with Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
In the 1980s Doar led an investigation by the Judicial Council of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit into bribery charges against U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings, who wound up being impeached and removed from office. Hastings, the first black federal judge in Florida, later was elected to Congress.
Doar practiced law well into his 80s at the New York firm Doar Rieck Kaley & Mack. Besides his son Burke, he is survived by a daughter, Gael; sons Robert and Michael; 12 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.