The first time I recall hearing the name John Doar was in the early or mid-1970s while I was an undergrad or law student at Ole Miss. The setting has long been forgotten, but someone — I think probably a law student who had worked as an intern at North Mississippi Rural Legal Services — was talking about what he called the “civil rights era.”
He said that there was an attorney from the Justice Department named John Doar who, during the voter registration era in the mid-1960s, went into black-owned business stores in Mississippi and Alabama. After introducing himself and letting the owner know he was with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., Mr. Doar would tell the owners he or she should feel free to register to vote at the local county courthouse. If anyone tried to interfere or intimidate them, they should call him, and he would see that it stopped. He would leave them a card without a name or a title — only a telephone number — which he said was where they could reach him day or night.
Hearing the story, I was curious but skeptical. The act seemed so far outside what I thought an attorney for the Justice Department would be called upon to undertake or might ever do that I passed it off as so much folklore.
Sometime later, on one of my many drives through the north central Mississippi countryside in the spring or fall of my time at Ole Miss, I went into a country store owned by a black family in rural Lafayette or Marshall County. I had stopped for gas and was paying for that and a cold bottled Coke after first checking out the name of the town on the bottom of the bottle to see where it had been made.
Standing at the counter, I saw a plain white business card with a single telephone number — nothing else. The card was scotch taped to the side of the cash register, stuck there among 30 or 40 other cards, decals, calendars, and miscellaneous other items. The card had no position of prominence and had faded to a pale shade of ochre. I stood there staring at the card for a few seconds while the owner (or maybe it was an employee clerk) made change with the bill that I had handed him.
When I held my hand out and looked up, the proprietor looked me directly in the eyes — solemnly, silently. I thought about the folk tale of Mr. Doar going in and out of stores like the one I was standing in, but I wasn’t sure about what questions to ask or even if it was my place to do so or how my questions might be received. I left and never went back of course.
I have since independently heard from other people who lived in Mississippi back then that Mr. Doar left his card just as I heard it described the first time. The only thing I can say it is that is consistent with and, if anything, altogether pedestrian in light of the other things that I later learned about him.
John Doar came from the mid-west and, after finishing college at Princeton, enlisted in the Army Air Corp and was training to be a bomber pilot when World War II ended. After he was discharged from the Army, he went to law school and joined his father in law practice in Wisconsin.
He went to work at Justice at the end of the Eisenhower Administration and was a self-proclaimed “Lincoln Republican” from Wisconsin who joined the Civil Rights Division with the view of trying to spearhead the registration of black voters in the South to loosen what he viewed as the stranglehold of Southern Democrats in Congress in preventing suffrage equality between the races. He stayed on during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.
After the first Freedom Riders bus was fire bombed in the summer of 1961 in Anniston, Alabama, and its passengers were beaten as local law enforcement officials looked away, Mr. Doar and another member of the Justice Department rode on the next Freedom Riders bus to Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Doar and a federal marshal escorted James Meredith to Ole Miss when he enrolled there on September 30, 1962, and he spent the first night with Meredith in his dormitory while riots took place a few hundred yards away in front of the Lyceum.
After Medgar Evers’ funeral service in Jackson in early June 1963, Mr. Doar stepped into the street as a large group of young African-Americans silently marched to Capitol Street protesting Mr. Evers’ assassination when they were met on Farish Street by a phalanx of policemen with helmets and billy clubs. Mr. Doar is credited with singlehandedly preventing a race riot. While rocks and stones were being thrown around and over him, he tried to calm the marchers and asked them to desist: “My name is John Doar. I am from the Justice Department, and everybody here knows that I stand for what is right.” He asked the students to go back to their homes, and they soon disbanded.
Mr. Doar argued with Thurgood Marshall to uphold the constitutionality of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the U.S. Supreme Court. He successfully prosecuted the first civil rights criminal cases in Alabama and in Mississippi. He obtained convictions with the help of U.S. Attorney Robert Hauberg in federal court in Meridian against several people, including a deputy sheriff, who participated in killing the three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, in Neshoba County during Freedom Summer. (One of the co-conspirators, who was acquitted for the federal crime prosecuted by Mr. Doar because a juror later said she could never vote to convict a preacher, was convicted in Neshoba County Circuit Court of manslaughter 41 years later.)
When Mr. Doar left the Justice Department, he became in-house counsel for a non-profit neighborhood development association in New York City. He returned to Washington, D.C., in 1973 and served as Republican counsel to the House Judiciary Committee when it issued articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. He never wrote about Watergate, and it is written that he never appeared on television in connection with any of the hearings.
Mr. Doar returned in 1974 to New York where he went into private law practice. He became one of the country’s leading antitrust lawyers defending some of the largest businesses in the United States.
In 2012, Mr. Doar received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, along with several others, including the legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, at the White House. The Wall Street Journal had a photograph of Dylan receiving the award above the fold on page one the day after the ceremony. The Clarion–Ledger, in one of its finest hours of civil-rights reporting, showed a quarter-page photo of the Lincoln Republican.
On November 11, 2014, one year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and after the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer had been discussed and memorialized for many months in Mississippi, Mr. Doar died of congestive heart failure surrounded by members of his family at his home in New York City.