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Civil Rights Icon John Doar ’49 to Get Presidential Medal of Freedom

John Doar '49
John Doar '49 (left) helps escort James Meredith in 1962

By Andrew Cohen

The usually unflappable John Doar ’49 said he was completely overwhelmed when he learned he would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest honor given to civilians.

“Speechless is an understatement,” said the legendary civil rights prosecutor, whose 12 fellow honorees include former astronaut and Senator John Glenn, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, author Toni Morrison, and musician Bob Dylan. “To be included with the group being recognized—it’s an honor that will stay with me always.”

As U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1960-1967, Doar led the federal effort to protect civil rights in the South. He relentlessly pushed to enforce the constitutional ban on racial discrimination in voter registration, filing lawsuits in every county of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.

Eight Boalt graduates worked under Doar, including 1962 classmates Thelton Henderson, now a U.S. District Court judge; Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a California Supreme Court judge; and Brian Landsberg, a University of the Pacific law professor. “John Doar provided extraordinary leadership in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department at a most critical time in its history,” Werdegar said. “This high honor appropriately acknowledges his remarkable service to our country.”

Doar’s approach to confronting the South’s voting imbalances required meticulous case development. His division’s lawsuits challenged numerous local registration procedures on the grounds that their standards did not apply equally to white and black voters.

“John taught us to immerse ourselves in both the paper records, such as voter registration applications, and in the human stories,” Landsberg says. “He expected much from his staff, and he led by example. Weekends were for interviewing potential witnesses; nights were for writing up one’s notes.”

In 1962, Doar escorted James Meredith when he registered as the University of Mississippi’s first black student. In 1963, he defused a potential riot in Jackson, Mississippi after the funeral for slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers—as police stood guard to prevent protestors from marching downtown.

“John proceeded from a very basic and innate sense of justice, of fairness, and of just doing the right thing,” Henderson said. “He did so methodically, with a sense of purpose, and without a need or desire for recognition. No one in the country was more trusted by the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement than John Doar.” (Read Henderson’s account of a fateful day in Mississippi when Doar stood in the line of fire to prevent certain massacre.)

In 1964, Doar prosecuted the “Mississippi Burning” killings of three civil rights workers, convicting seven Ku Klux Klan members. His work was also widely credited for helping push through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“In 1960, the United States lived under a dishonest system of self-government,” Doar said. “In several of the southern states, citizens, because of their race, could not even vote. The problem had existed for almost 100 years. In 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the problem was solved.”

In 1974, Doar served as Special Counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, which was investigating the Watergate scandal and preparing articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. In private practice, he has worked on complex commercial and personal disputes, including major antitrust, contract, insurance, bank fraud, healthcare, and estate-related litigation.

Now 90, Doar lives in New York City and still spends time at his law firm, Doar Rieck Kaley & Mack, where he is senior counsel. “I am no longer actively practicing law, but I am working on several matters,” he said. “I have always worked. It is hard to change.”

The Medal of Freedom will be presented at a ceremony this spring.

In his own words: Judge Thelton Henderson, who attended the funeral for assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, remembers the volatile aftermath of that event, and the actions of John Doar.

“The moment stands out in my mind to this day: I can see the black marchers, coming full of grief and anger from the funeral, and I can see the line of white policemen no more than 20 yards away, blocking off the street to prevent the crowd from passing. I remember exactly where I was, walking at the front of the crowd, and I remember the moment when I realized the danger we were walking into.

This was Jackson, Mississippi. This was a town where the police had a reputation for firing warning shots at waist-level. And here, in Jackson, the angry crowd was beginning to shout, some throwing Coke bottles and other objects at the waiting line of police. The police waited, ready to prevent us from marching past them towards downtown. I remember the face of the police captain—red and sweating, angry, and yelling increasingly dire warnings to the crowd.

The situation was escalating toward certain massacre. I started trying to work my way toward the back of the crowd. I was fully expecting the riot to result in multiple deaths, and I did not want to be among the casualties.

It was at that moment that I heard a pause behind me, and I turned to see a tall white man stepping from behind the police line to stand between the police and the marchers. He looked like John Wayne—maybe a little thinner, but the same imposing scale. I’ll never forget the moment I heard him say, “My name is John Doar. D-o-a-r.” He always spelled his name, and with good reason, as a lot of people were going to write about what happened that day.

I don’t remember the specific words he used, or what he said to calm the angry crowd, but John Doar stood that day, in the line of fire, and prevented what would otherwise have been a slaughter. He had the courage to stand where no one else would dare to tread, and only God will know how many lives were saved.”