John Doar, Civil Rights Attorney, Dies at 92

12 Nov

Interview with John Doar – “Eyes on the Prize”

John Doar, a lawyer who worked as an attorney and as Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department during the height of the civil rights movement, has died at age 92. Doar, who was interviewed for Henry Hampton’s series, Eyes on the Prize, played a major role in several key episodes of the movement. During Doar’s time at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division from 1960-1967 he was on the ground  investigating civil rights abuses in the South, often in the middle of volatile and potentially violent situations, and bringing suits against people who violated the 1957 Civil Rights Act. In 2012, President Obama awarded Doar with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Doar first filed suits over voter intimidation in Tennessee.  In early 1961, he and fellow Department of Justice attorney Bob Owen began investigating voter discrimination in southwest Mississippi with Bob Moses’ help.  While Doar primarily investigated voter intimidation cases, he also accompanied James Meredith as he enrolled in Ole’ Miss in September of 1962.  After arranging for Meredith to be registered despite a confrontation with the governor and riots on the school grounds, Doar stayed with Meredith in his dorm room for several weeks, accompanying him to his classes with federal marshals.

In 1964, Doar was involved in the investigation of the murder of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman during Freedom Summer.  He authorized the F.B.I. to investigate the case, and he was the lead attorney in the federal trial that led to the conviction of several people for violating the civil rights of the three civil rights workers.  Doar also investigated and successfully prosecuted the murder of Viola Luizzo, who was killed while bringing marchers back to Selma from Montgomery.  Doar had been present during the entirety of that march.

One of Doar’s most famous actions occurred after the death of Medgar Evers.  Mourners wanted to march up the main street in Jackson, MS, but they were stopped by police.  When marchers began throwing bottles and bricks and county police were brought in with shot-guns, Doar stepped between the two groups and convinced the marchers to disperse peacefully. He describes this moment vividly in his interview,

Well, I went to the funeral,  because I knew Medgar, and he was a friend, and his friends, people from all over the country came to the funeral… and they wanted to march up the main street in Jackson. And the police officials didn’t want them to do that, they said that they could walk across and then walk into a side street where the black restaurants and the black stores were.

And the police permitted the marchers–the memorial march–to cross the main street, but then finish up in the side street where the black shops were. And so they started back along toward the main street of Jackson and when they got to the corner of this side street that I’ve described, and the main street, the police put up a road block, put up a line of people and said you can’t march on the main street of Jackson, Mississippi. And, so you had a line of police and you had a line of kids, or 3 lines of kids, and they were 2 or 3 feet apart and the kids were singing and agitating, and yelling and shouting and complaining and then, who pushed who first, I can’t tell you but the police started to reach out and grab one, five, six of these kids and throw them in the paddy wagon…And when they got about a block up the street, the county Sheriff’s Office supplemented this line of police with County Deputies and they had guns, shot guns, and I didn’t think that they had the discipline that the City police officers did. And so half a block down the street, a black kid had come out of the crowd and throw [sic] a bottle and it had bounced in front of this line of police and the glass had skidded into them, or a rock had come out or a brick had come out and it had hit, hit the street in front of them and skidded into them and I was just afraid that if this kept on that somebody was really going to get hurt because I didn’t have any confidence in the discipline of those county officers. So I walked through the line of police and walked out and persuaded everybody to stop.

–John Doar from Interview with John Doar (Eyes on the Prize)

After his work in the Justice Department, Doar served as Special Counsel to the House of Representatives, and then worked as a senior partner in a private law firm in New York.

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