John Doar: The ‘one of us’ who changed America

James Meredith, left, speaks to the audience as former Justice Department attorney John Doar, right, looks on during a forum in Boston in 2002. It was the last time Doar and Meredith saw each other. Steven Senne / AP

I am inexcusably late acknowledging the death of John Doar yesterday, which only symbolizes a reality of his life. Born in Minneapolis and raised in New Richmond, Wisconsin, Doar was “one of us” in the classic way we proudly claim ownership of legends.

But Doar’s contributions to the world were often overlooked, especially here, for some odd reason.

When he got the presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in May 2012, he barely got a mention in these parts — well, except for one — because Bob Dylan got one at the same time.

Dylan’s contributions can’t be minimized — and certainly never will be minimized considering the way he’s adored around here.

But you know what he never did? He never walked through an angry white crowd on a University of Mississippi campus and literally open the door for African-Americans to have the right to attend the university of their choice. He never stood between an angry black mob and the police after the death of Medgar Evans. He never faced down the Ku Klux Klansmen who killed three civil rights workers in the “Mississippi Burning” case.

In 2002, the Mississippi Law Journal noted his Twin Cities upbringing and, as it turned out, its effect on civil rights in America.

John Doar’s courage was well known to his classmates at [St. Paul Academy in St. Paul]. In the final game of the 1939 football season, St. Paul’s unbeaten team met its archrival, Blake.

In the final quarter of a close game, Blake drove the ball deep into St. Paul’s end of the field. Classmate Ted Brooks recalled, “Three times John Doar stood alone between the Blake ball carrier and the goal line. He nailed the guy. Three crunching tackles. We won 7-0. He was fearless.”

It was a quality that served him well in the South. In Jackson, in the wee hours of June 12, 1963, a sniper waited in a honeysuckle thicket near the driveway of Medgar Evers, a thirty-seven-year-old national field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. When Evers walked from his car to the front door of his house, the gunman shot and killed him.

Three days later black dignitaries including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins were in Jackson to attend the assassinated civil rights leader’s funeral and participate in a silent march. After the march in 100-degree heat ended, several hundred young blacks refused to disperse.

They swept down Farish Street toward the main white business district singing “This Little Light of Mine” and clapping hands. A battalion of helmeted riot police in short-sleeved shirts and sunglasses formed a line to stop them.

When Deputy Police Chief A. L. Ray ordered the demonstrators to go home, the young blacks began throwing bricks, stones, and bottles in the direction of the police line. “We want the killer! We want the killer!” the crowd chanted. Demonstrators in the rear began stomping feet and shouting “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” Police dogs went berserk and were yanked back by their leashes.

Cursing police officers drew pistols or began swinging riot clubs. Merchants along Farish Street hurriedly bolted their doors.

DOARBESTInto the no-man’s land between the police and the rioters walked John Doar.

The crowd stopped for a moment, stunned as though they were watching a ghost. Then bottles, bricks, and other missiles began crashing around him. Doar called to the crowd. “You’re not going to win anything with bottles and bricks,” he said.

He could hardly be heard above the roar of the crowd, which began to encircle him. A man with a tire iron lifted it and took aim at Doar’s head. An angry black woman yelled in his face, “We get our rumps shot up!” She asked with sarcastic disgust, “Are we gonna wait for the Justice Department?”

Doar pleaded, “Aw, give us a break.” Then he shouted again, “Hold it! Is there someone here who can speak for you people?” One black youth emerged from the demonstrators and joined Doar in the street. “This man is right,” the youth said, pointing at Doar. “My name is John Doar—D-O-A-R,” the official called again and again. “I’m from the Justice Department, and anybody around here knows I stand for what is right.”

He walked toward the mob, shouting—begging—for the crowd to disperse. “Medgar Evers wouldn’t want it this way,” he called.

In an alley, a CORE worker grabbed a teenager with a rifle who was taking aim at Doar. “Hold hands with me and help us move these people along,” Doar said to some nearby protesters. A few people linked hands and they slowly began to push the mob back from the police line. A massacre was averted. Barricades were removed and a motorized streetsweeper began whisking up the broken glass and other hurled debris.

Years later, as chief counsel of the House Judiciary Committee, he recommended the impeachment of President Nixon.

The voices of civil rights in the ’60s are being silenced by the ages. Doar never wrote a book about his life; he rarely gave speeches about it, and he didn’t like to give interviews.

This is one of the few times he’s been interviewed at length about his life. It’s quite an extraordinary recollection of history. History that still matters with lessons still to be learned.

He described himself as a “Lincoln Republican.”

“It means we believe in an honest system of self government,” he said. “In 1960, for 75, almost 100 years before that, we had a dishonest system of self government.”

“I always felt Wisconsin was a second-class state because it had an honest system of self government. We had a two-party system that functioned quite well. We were competing with a one-party system in the South,” he said, noting that Congress’ most powerful men were southerners.

He said “it would be good for the country, and good for Wisconsin if we could eliminate the Solid South.”

And that’s just what he did.

Related: John Doar's Closing Argument in the Mississippi Burning Trial.