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John Doar, a different kind of civil rights champion

JAZELLE HUNT | 11/24/2014, 8:43 a.m. | Updated on 11/24/2014, 8:57 a.m.
Though many Whites were active in civil rights, few were as influential as John Doar, the legendary lawyer and civil ...
Flonzie Brown-Wright and John Doar at Tougaloo College Flonzie Brown-Wright

By JAZELLE HUNT

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Though many Whites were active in civil rights, few were as influential as John Doar, the legendary lawyer and civil rights champion, who died recently at the age of 92.

“He was unique in the Justice Department in that he would give you his home phone number,” says Julian Bond, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and former board chairman of the NAACP. “We were in constant danger of losing our lives. He understood that, and he did something about it in a way that no one else in the Justice Department did.”

As the U.S. Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, Doar was responsible for monitoring voter registration and civil rights efforts for instances of state-sanctioned disenfranchisement and racial violence between 1960 and 1967. The Justice Department also collected data on Black citizens who were jailed, fined and charged with crimes for their grassroots voter registration efforts – and occasionally intervened on their behalf.

But Doar routinely exceeded his job description.

In Oxford, Mississippi, he escorted James Meredith, the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi, to register for classes and to his dormitory – flanked by a U.S. marshal and surrounded by yelling, outraged Whites. Doar spent several weeks at Meredith’s side, amidst riots that resulted in two deaths.

In Jackson, Mississippi, he stepped between White police officers wielding batons and guns, and Black demonstrators lobbing bricks, bottles and debris in the wake of Medgar Evers’ assassination.

In Selma, Alabama, he oversaw the federal lawyers documenting the final march to Montgomery, and successfully prosecuted the man responsible for murdering a White volunteer who had helped during the march.

And when Mississippi refused to prosecute, Doar personally took on the case of the three murdered civil rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, securing convictions for seven of the 17 men tried for the crime.

“He was not an ordinary Justice Department official,” said Flonzie Brown-Wright, who agitated for the right to vote. Brown-Wright became an elections commissioner in 1968, and the first Black woman elected to public office in Mississippi since Reconstruction. “Normally when we interacted with the Justice Department, we’d be marching … [the lawyers] could see the brutality, but they wouldn’t move on it. But [Doar] would get right in there and march with you.”

During his tenure in the Justice Department, Doar launched some of the first federal injunctions to force state prosecutors to pursue cases against Whites who had beaten and killed Blacks who were lawfully demonstrating. As he continued to prove his dedication to the cause of racial equality, social justice and equal voting access, Black Southerners in the know began to trust him as an ally.

Brown-Wright remembers the buzz around Doar’s assignment to Mississippi. She remembers receiving a call from Charles Evers (Medgar Evers’ brother), who told her that Doar had been assigned to her district.

“To be honest with you, it was hard for me to visualize a White man coming to our town to help with our issues,” she said. “But his name became a household word. When he spoke you knew you were going to hear truth, and fairness, and we could vent our frustrations with him and not have it carried back to White officials to be distorted.”