As a young attorney working within the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, John Doar was in downtown Jackson in June, 1963 to prevent a riot following the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Doar placed himself between angry black youths and a double line of heavily armed, police ready to move in with clubs and guns. Sidestepping stones and bottles he moved along Farrish Street urging the mob to put down their weapons. “My name is John Doar, D-O-A-R,” he shouted. “I’m from the Justice Department, and anybody around here knows I stand for what is right.”
In September of 1962, John Doar stood with James Meredith in the doorway outside Room 1007 on the 10th floor of the State Office Building in Jackson as his Meredith’s attempt to register as the first black student at the University of Mississippi was blocked by Governor Ross Barnett. Doar said to Governor Barnett, ” I call on you to permit us to go on in and see Mr. Ellis and get this young man registered.” Doar’s request was met with shouts of “No! No!” and then “Get going! Get going!” “Thank you, and we leave politely,” Doar said.
When not preventing riots or confronting governors, Doar was usually working tirelessly to protect the voting rights of black southernors. In the end, it was Doar’s dogged work that provided, in his words, “a clear demonstration” that the old laws did not work and that new protections were needed. Doar, as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, watched President Johnson sign into law in August of 1965 the Voting Rights Act. Doar described the Act as “one of the greatest pieces of legislation ever enacted.”
Doar was very sympathetic to the goals of the Mississippi Summer Project. He spoke at the Ohio training sessions attended by Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. “I admire what you intend to do,” he told the young volunteers. Then he warned them that the federal government could not protect them from violence: “There is no federal police force.”
Doar was the first federal official notified of the disappearance of the three civil rights workers near Philadelphis, Mississippi. At !:30 A.M. on June 22, 1964, Doar received a call from an Atlanta SNCC worker telling him that the three were hours overdue from their trip to Neshoba County. Doar told the worker to contact the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, and soon thereafter invested the FBI with authority to enter the case.
Doar was the obvious choice as lead prosecutor in the Mississippi Burning Trial. Two years earlier in Alabama, Doar had successfully prosecuted white supremacist Collie Leroy Wilkins for the murder of Viola Liuzzo. The conviction, based on a federal civil rights law and obtained from an all-white jury, was the first ever in Alabama for the death of a civil rights worker.
Doar was born in Minneapolis in 1921. He graduated from St. Paul Academy, Princeton, and Boalt Hall School of Law. He was practicing law in Wisconsin in 1960 when asked to take a job in the Justice Department that Doar said “no one else wanted.” Doar left government service after seven years, and has subsequently remained in private practice in New York, except for a brief stint in 1974 as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment crisis.
Fellow civil rights attorney William Taylor said Doar had “a clear vision of what was unjust and intolerable, and he kept focused on that.” Doar is, Taylor said, “a great man, a hero.”
Doar is a recipient of the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom.