Friday, May 06, 2011

Civil Lion: Attorney John Doar Battled for Civil Rights by Diane McWhorter

John Doar arrived late at a party on the
Upper East Side of Manhattan a few years back, and
upon spotting his tall, gray, and eternally reassuring
form, women in the room began screaming. Such a
reaction is rare outside the entertainment-industrial complex
and 12-to-18 demographic, but then Doar is the man
of little girls’ dreams, the charismatic rescuer. No one who
writes about him can resist the compulsion to invoke Gary
Cooper. Albeit a lawyer, Doar is the last, lone moral man,
the avatar of grace under pressure.
High Noon was in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 15,
1963, at the terrifying height of the civil rights movement—
and 14 years after Doar’s graduation from Boalt
Hall. A very white, Northern-born lawyer from the U.S.
Justice Department, Doar had spent the previous three
years in the darkest heart of American apartheid, traveling
the mean byways of the segregated South to eke affidavits
out of disenfranchised blacks in order to sue the local voter
registrars. His oracle in Mississippi was Medgar Evers of the
NAACP, who had spread maps on his kitchen table to show
Doar the remote rural addresses of black farmers willing to
risk their lives to vote. Now Evers himself was dead at 37,
shot in the back shortly after midnight on June 11 by a
downwardly mobile fertilizer salesman.
After Evers’s dignitary-studded funeral the following
Saturday, June 15, younger black activists singing, “Before
I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,” and then shouting
“We want the killer!” mounted a challenge to riot-guntoting
policemen and their dogs blockading them from
Jackson’s “white” business district. Doar emerged from a
nearby cafĂ© into an escalating melee, and “shifting slightly
now and then to dodge bottles and brickbats,” The New
York Times reported, strode into the middle of Farish Street.
Eminently targetable at six-foot-two-and-a-half, he raised
his arms, shirtsleeves rolled up, and yelled “Hold it” to a
hostile audience numbering approximately 1,000, some of
whom seemed ready to start a race war with the police.
“My name is John Doar—D-O-A-R. I’m from the Justice
Department, and anybody around here knows I stand
for what is right,” he said. After he enlisted a civil rights
organizer he recognized to help him wage nonviolence, as
Doar now explains, “it stopped.” Although history would
romanticize the scene as a cinematic convergence of destinies,
the United States government in consort with the
civil rights movement, Doar insists, “It was no big deal, it
really wasn’t.”
And it wasn’t, compared with the international-newsmaking
white riot in Mississippi the previous September,
when the Kennedy administration had to send in the Army
to quell the bloody insurrection greeting James Meredith’s
desegregation of the state university. That Sunday night,
as the new student’s handler from Justice, Doar had taken
the dorm room adjoining Meredith’s, on a campus melting
down in teargas, Molotov cocktails, and rifle fire that
ultimately ended two lives. The next morning he escorted
Meredith to the registrar in a bullet-pocked government
car, and he would remain at Ole Miss for weeks—the kind
of hardship duty that prompted Doar’s boss, Attorney General
Robert Kennedy, to refer to him as “the best Republican
in the country.”
A righteous man: As an
attorney in the civil rights
division of the U.S. Justice
Department, John Doar,
J.D. ’49, escorted James
Meredith to class at the formerly
segregated University
of Mississippi. Nearly a year
later, he helped quell
a black riot following
the assassination of civil
rights leader Medgar Evers.
He also helped draft the
Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At 85, he remains in private
practice in New York.
Photographed in his
New York office by
Jeff Jacobson.
Doar (whose small-town Wisconsin background Kennedy
also found quaintly amusing) had been tapped in
1960, at age 38, to take over the number-two position in
the civil rights division of the Eisenhower Justice Department—
a less-than-coveted job “they couldn’t give away
to anybody at Harvard and Yale.... They had to settle for
someone from the sticks, a rube,” says Doar, who had been
captain of the basketball team at Princeton. His Southern
classmates there had always insisted that the South would
solve its own problems and now, more than 15 years later,
in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and Emmett Till
and Rosa Parks, the segregationists had only dug in their
heels. And so did Doar agree to play Marshal Dillon (his
other press-assigned alter ego) in the South’s legendary civil
rights showdowns of the 1960s.
In addition to voting rights, Doar specialized in prosecuting
homicidal white supremacists: the mob that
torched a busload of Freedom Riders traveling integrated
through Alabama in 1961; the Klansmen (accompanied,
if not abetted, by an FBI informant) who gunned down
the white activist Viola Liuzzo at the end of the Selma-to-
Montgomery March of 1965. His valedictory, in 1967, was
the notorious “Mississippi Burning” trial. By now head
of the civil rights division, he won miraculous guilty verdicts
(under federal Reconstruction-era statutes) against
some of the Klan-police conspirators in the execution of
Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andy Goodman
during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. Doar’s
devastating closing arguments (“not delivered very well,” he
demurs) were modeled on the prosecution’s statements at
the Nuremberg trials.
In 1974, Doar vindicated his slain boss’s sardonic praise
of him as the country’s shining Republican. The chief counsel
for the House Judiciary Committee’s inquiry into Watergate,
he imposed formidable discipline and a sense of historic
mission on a staff of around 40 lawyers—one of them the
young Yale law graduate Hillary Rodham—and, on July 19,
backed by 36 volumes’ worth of findings, recommended the
impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon (“I’m sure I
voted for him,” he says). The “awesomeness” of the deed, he
told the committee, rendered him hardly able to “believe I
am speaking as I do or thinking as I do.”
Out of all his good-versus-evil anti-star turns, the scene
Doar’s memory returns to most often is the long line of
black citizens at the Sugar Shack, a tiny polling place outside
Selma, Alabama, waiting patiently to vote in their first
local election following the passage of the Voting Rights
Act of 1965: the fulfillment of his behind-the-scenes
leg- and paperwork. The Gary Cooper stuff, by contrast,
doesn’t much impress Doar, who continues, at 85, to
report regularly to his private law office in lower Manhattan.
“He said ‘shucks’ a lot, didn’t he?” he says slyly, noting
that one of his high school English teachers considered
Cooper the worst actor. Deflecting credit, of course, is the
soul of the myth.

Diane McWhorter is the author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham,
Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights
Revolution, which was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for
General Nonfiction.

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