By Bill Minor
JACKSON – No one among the 13 honorees slated to receive the presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, is more worthy of that recognition than John Doar, the legendary Justice Department’s civil rights chief, who to my personal knowledge did more to bring racial justice to Mississippi than any other individual.
Above all, Doar deserves credit for single-handedly saving the state of Mississippi in 1963 from the scourge of a massacre that could have left hundreds of black people dead. I can also name three other instances when the wavy-haired, extraordinarily modest lawyer did heroic work.
Flash back to the scorching-hot June day in 1963 when the funeral procession for assassinated civil rights martyr Medgar Evers was about to disband outside Collins Funeral Home on Jackson’s Farish Street. A defiant throng of marchers, mostly younger blacks, began moving toward the line of riot-helmeted, heavily armed lawmen arrayed almost two blocks away to guard the entrance to Capitol Street, the city’s main business thoroughfare.
A hail of rocks and bottles fell near officers as itchy fingers fondled 200 weapons. Suddenly from police ranks, a tall, coatless white man in white rolled-up shirt sleeves strode through the shower of missiles toward the angry mob. Raising his hands, “I am John Doar with the Justice Department,” he said, urging marchers to disperse and take their grievances through the courts.
Few knew who he was or that for two years he had ridden the state’s dusty back roads helping blacks to become voters. Ringleaders in the crowd urged aloud to surge past the white lawyer. But Doar’s earnest, commanding presence soon broke the back of the mob and it disbanded.
I watched the entire dramatic event unfold, immediately realizing how dangerously close the Mississippi capital came to a catastrophic tragedy.
The following summer, hundreds of mostly Northern white college students flooded the state to help Mississippi blacks become registered voters. Three young men (one black) sent to Neshoba County were murdered in a Klan plot, prompting teams of FBI agents to be dispatched to Mississippi to crack the case, arresting 25 suspects. Again, John Doar was the man on the scene for the Justice Department. For weeks, he battled with recalcitrant federal judges before winning 18 indictments.
When the state declined to try the men on murder charges, the feds took over prosecution, using post-Civil War civil rights laws which carried a 10-year maximum sentence. Who would lead the prosecution? Though little experienced in criminal prosecution, Doar got the assignment – a soft-spoken Midwesterner facing an all-white jury of Mississippians. To the amazement of many, Doar convicted seven and an eighth turned state’s evidence. Several had hung juries, including the sleazy plot leader, Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen, who remarkably would be convicted on state murder charges 40 years later.
In the fall of 1962, before his heroic stand on Jackson’s Farish Street, Doar became the visible symbol of federal authority in shepherding James Meredith through legal pitfalls and defiance of Gov. Ross Barnett to be enrolled as the first African-American student at Ole Miss. A bloody night-long campus riot, fueled by dozens of outsiders, had forced President Kennedy to send 20,000 troops to restore order.
Tragic as was the Meredith-Barnett confrontation, the one bit of levity to come out of the episode was when Doar, with Meredith and Chief U.S. Marshal James P. McShane beside him, stood in front of Barnett at the doorway of the state College Board office in Jackson and the governor drawled without a shred of humor, “Which one of you is James Meredith?”
Six years after leaving his DOJ civil rights post, Doar was again pressed into service by his country – this time as prosecutor of impeachment charges brought by the U.S. House against President Richard Nixon. We all know how that ended.
At age 92, John Doar, always understating his role in U.S. history, will be justifiably honored by his nation.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.