Doar Stood Tall in Fight for Civil Rights in South

Doar Drill & Skow | Personal Injury Attorneys in Wisconsin

By Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel


It was nearly 50 years ago that a small-town lawyer from Wisconsin found himself at the violent epicenter of a social revolution in a strange and distant land.

The lawyer was John Doar.

The revolution was the civil rights movement.

The land was the American South.

"The story of John Doar needs to be told," says John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and battered hero of that era. "As a nation and as a people, we wouldn't be where we are today without John Doar."

John Doar is now 88, in good health and all but retired from the New York City law firm he founded. He is not what you would call famous, inside or outside Wisconsin.

But he is legendary, a distinctive historical character, tall and tough and taciturn, abruptly thrust into two postwar political earthquakes: the overthrow of Jim Crow, when Doar worked the Southern states for the Justice Department and was a central figure in many of the iconic events of the age; and the fall of Richard Nixon, when Doar served as the top attorney for the House committee investigating Watergate.

"Nobody could be luckier," Doar says of his legal career.

It's fair to say Doar is better known to some Americans for his cameo in Watergate than for his long slog as a civil rights official in the 1960s.

Doar Drill & Skow | Personal Injury Attorneys in WisconsinBut it's his civil rights work that is arguably Doar's real legacy and the source of his mystique as a public servant of understated grit. To his discomfort, comparisons to Gary Cooper and Marshal Matt Dillon have been a staple of Doar coverage over the years.

"My hero," says 87-year-old newspaperman Bill Minor, who in 1963 watched Doar defuse a potential riot in Jackson, Miss. after the assassination and funeral of the NAACP's Medgar Evers.

Minor wrote an account of the incident under the title, "The Day John Doar Saved Mississippi." Tie knotted, shirt sleeves rolled up, Doar stepped between a cordon of itchy-fingered lawmen and angry black protesters, announced himself as a federal official and talked the demonstrators into dispersing. It was 103 degrees. Reporters were certain troopers and deputies were going to open fire at any moment, sparking a massacre.

"It wasn't all that much," Doar says during a long interview in his law office.

"Kids started to throw rocks. That's when I thought it could get bad if it didn't stop. I told them my name and (said) 'Everybody knew I stood for what was right.' It was corny," says Doar with a sheepish grin.

"They should have built a monument to him" in Mississippi, says Minor, who covered the state for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

A lifeline to the cause

In the civil rights literature, Doar keeps popping up at pivotal points. He escorted James Meredith in repeated attempts to register as the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962. He was Meredith's minder during a night-long siege of federal marshals on the Ole Miss campus by a homicidal white mob, an astonishing episode in American history that Minor describes as a "mini-Civil War." More than 100 marshals were injured or wounded by vigilantes and a reporter with Agence France-Presse was summarily shot to death.

Doar walked alongside the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965 as observer and protector. He prosecuted the notorious "Mississippi Burning" case against local whites who murdered three civil rights workers - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner - in rural Neshoba County in 1964.

He and a small cadre of government lawyers laid the tedious legal groundwork against black disenfranchisement, establishing the factual basis for the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

For roughly seven years, Doar was the eyes, ears and face of the Justice Department in the Deep South. A scrap of paper with Doar's name and number was considered a lifeline by civil rights workers operating in obscure and menacing hamlets that Doar once compared to "going back into the 19th century."

"He was our link to the federal government," says Lewis, the congressman who was beaten violently as a Freedom Rider and a Selma marcher more than 40 years ago. "He gave us a reason not to give up on those in power. People would always say, 'Call John Doar. John Doar could reach Bobby Kennedy,'." who was attorney general at the time.

Bob Moses, the legendary organizer who led the effort to register blacks in Mississippi, was arrested six times in the 1960s. Doar and his colleagues repeatedly got him out of jail.

Moses says Doar and the civil rights division made a critical contribution to the psychology of the movement, letting local blacks who faced brutal intimidation know that someone in the government was on their side. Moses called it a "coalition of the top and the bottom."

"People we're working with are bombarded by all the forces in Mississippi telling them what they're doing is wrong," says Moses. "So what Doar and the people from the Justice Department are telling them, that what we're doing is right, was really important."

Without that, he says, "there's no way that the sustained effort to get the right to vote could have been mounted."

His name just popped up

Doar's emergence as a civil rights figure was both sudden and unlikely. He grew up in lily-white western Wisconsin, sharing a hometown, New Richmond, with distant relative, longtime friend and Green Bay Packers star, Johnny "Blood" McNally. At 6-foot-2, Doar played basketball at Princeton, went to law school at the University of California and came home in 1950 to practice law with his father and cousin, future governor Warren Knowles.

The call from Washington came a decade later, in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. The Justice Department couldn't find anyone to serve as first assistant in the lightly staffed, 3-year-old civil rights division. Doar's name popped up in conversation between two Princeton grads. One was division head Harold Tyler.

Restless, Doar jumped at the offer.

He hadn't thought a great deal about civil rights. The sentiment he remembers best was a parochial one: That the racial caste system sustaining one-party rule in Dixie was horribly unfair to his home state of Wisconsin and its "legitimate" system of two-party self-government.

"It wasn't fair that one part of the country, the 'Solid South,' could build up seniority to point of where they had nine chances in 10 of being committee chairmen," says Doar.

Doar's "pioneering trademark" at the Justice Department "was to act partly as his own FBI agent," Taylor Branch wrote in his prize-winning civil rights chronicle, "Parting the Waters."

Doar's first trip into the field took him to a remote Tennessee church filled with black sharecroppers facing eviction because they tried to register to vote. In its systematic scale and corruption, the suppression of black voting rights was a revelation to Doar. Illiterate whites could vote, but educated blacks couldn't.

Doar's activism helped persuade the incoming Kennedy Administration to keep him on, even though he was a Republican. Attorney General Robert Kennedy later teased Doar that by stirring up Southern Democrats with his civil rights cases, he was the GOP's best weapon against the Kennedys.

"The thing about John and Bobby Kennedy was they didn't know a damn thing about the civil rights movement when they came into office. They didn't know black leaders or anything else," says Claude Sitton, who covered civil rights for the New York Times. "But they recognized their ignorance, and they sent Doar into the South to sort of keep them informed."

One of Bobby Kennedy's first steps was to demand more voting-rights cases. A map on the wall of Doar's D.C. office filled up with pins for every Southern county where the division was active.

"The job of the civil rights lawyers was really to rub the noses of the Southern officials and everybody (else) in how bad the situation was," says Doar. "The thing that was there for everybody to see, but nobody really saw it, was that it wasn't just that the system was disqualifying qualified blacks - it was that the system was qualifying every unqualified white."

Bud Sather, a Republican lawyer Doar hired from his hometown of New Richmond, found in one case that all the registration forms whites received were coded with tiny dots showing confused applicants where to sign. There were no dots on the forms blacks received.

"That kind of work is not what lawyers who go to Harvard, Yale and Columbia expect to be doing when they get out of law school. They want to talk about big legal issues," says Doar. "We made them see the romance in the records."

As violence mounted, Doar took on the role of troubleshooter, spending 150 to 200 days a year in the South. He became a fixture in what journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff describe in their book, "The Race Beat," as "the traveling road show of racial conflict" that carried reporters and federal officials from hot spot to hot spot.

Doar became a hugely admired figure to those reporters.

"He stood tall and, man, he was so absolutely unafraid, it was unbelievable," says Jack Nelson, who opened the first Southern bureau for the Los Angeles Times.

Doar rescued reporter

Reporter Arlie Schardt credits Doar with saving his life in 1966. Son of a Milwaukee educator and Olympic track champion (also named Arlie), Schardt covered civil rights for Time Magazine.

During a Mississippi march, he was interviewing sharecroppers on a nearby farm when sheriff's deputies pulled up and tossed him in the back of their car. Because this was Neshoba County - the same county where the sheriff's office was tied to the notorious killings of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman - Schardt imagined the worst: He could be taken off and shot, and no one would ever know what happened.

As they were hauling him away, the deputies' route took them right past the civil rights march, where Doar was striding down the highway. Schardt rolled down the car window and yelled until he got Doar's attention. The deputies recognized Doar instantly and had no choice but to stop.

Doar told the lawmen, "You guys don't really want to do this, do you?"

Schardt was released on the spot.

"He pretty much saved my life," says Schardt, who says he sometimes wonders how Doar himself survived those years.

"None of us can figure out how or why John lived though that era," he says.

"He was known to every Southern politician - and I assure you, he was the evil genie to the Ku Klux Klan," says John Seigenthaler, longtime editor of the Nashville Tennessean and aide to Kennedy at the Justice Department.

Doar eventually took over the civil rights division, succeeding his old boss, Burke Marshall. He won federal convictions in the Neshoba County murders. He prosecuted the killers of Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit who was shot from a passing car while helping out at the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

Doar finally left the Justice Department in 1967.

"I was pretty well worn out," says Doar, who didn't return to government service until nearly seven years later when he became special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate investigation. The committee voted on a bipartisan basis to impeach the president. Doar founded his New York law firm after Nixon resigned.

Doar still owns and visits his old family home in New Richmond. All the attributes attached to him in books and newspaper stories - lanky, laconic, unassuming, unflappable - are still evident.

"I've got a lot of stories," he admits, but expresses little interest in putting his own story down on paper. He does few interviews.

But Doar has begun to organize and collect his papers so that historians will have a thorough record of what the lawyers who worked for the civil rights division accomplished more than 40 years ago. Like other civil rights veterans, he took special satisfaction from the historic turnout of African-Americans last year in an election that gave the nation its first black president.

"The country has some resiliency," says Bob Moses, the pioneering civil rights figure who later founded the Algebra Project, which teaches math to low-income kids.

"I think America is surprising in its ability to produce people at particular points in its history who are trying to grapple with these fundamental problems that have been with it since its founding," he says.

"John is certainly one of those people."

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