JACKSON — U.S. Justice Department attorney John Doar earned respect among Mississippi civil-rights activists in the 1960s as a trusted advocate who was committed to the ideals of racial equality.
Doar was 92 when he died of congestive heart failure Nov. 11 in New York.
Activists in Mississippi, including Flonzie Brown-Wright of Jackson, believe it’s important to remember his legacy.
“He walked into a hornets’ nest. He didn’t have to come to Mississippi,” said Brown-Wright, who met Doar in the early 1960s. She was in her early 20s then, and faced danger after she re-opened the NAACP office in Canton, which had been closed for some time.
Doar, a Wisconsin native with an Ivy League degree, first went to work for the Justice Department under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and he remained there under two Democratic presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He played important roles in Mississippi history and helped keep the peace during tumultuous times as the white power structure struggled to maintain its control in the segregated South.
In the fall of 1962, Doar was among the federal officials who escorted James Meredith when Meredith became the first black student to enroll in the University of Mississippi.
Months later, in the summer of 1963, the tall, lanky Northerner stood between a heavily armed police contingent and masses of black mourners after the downtown Jackson funeral procession for Medgar Evers, the state NAACP leader who was assassinated days earlier. He implored people to leave peacefully — and they did.
In 1967, Doar prosecuted several Neshoba County residents in the conspiracy to kidnap and kill civil-rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. An all-white jury convicted seven of them, including a deputy sheriff.
Andrew Goodman’s younger brother, David, told The Associated Press last week that he was honored to have shaken Doar’s hand.
“He was a national treasure, in my opinion, and a brave man who never thought he was brave,” David Goodman said. “He was just doing his job, which was to protect the democratic process.”
President Barack Obama awarded Doar the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 2012.
Meredith, contacted last week at his Jackson home, said he didn’t remember much about Doar escorting him amid violent protests at Ole Miss. “I probably didn’t know he was there,” Meredith said.
Longtime Mississippi journalist Bill Minor covered the Evers funeral in Jackson and recalled it was a scorchingly hot day with tensions running high. He firmly believes Doar prevented a massacre by stepping between the black mourners who were bitterly angry over the injustice of Evers’ assassination and the white law-enforcement officers who were heavily armed and, Minor, said appeared to be “itching for a fight.”
“He walked down the middle of the street with bricks flying over his head. He talked them into going on, backing down and not confronting the policemen,” Minor said. “It was a touch-and-go situation…. It was just amazing that it didn’t just explode. It could’ve been a shooting gallery.”
Brown-Wright — who made history in 1968 by winning a seat on the previously all-white Madison County Elections Commission — recalled that when she first heard an attorney named John Doar was coming to Mississippi, she thought his name sounded like the all-purpose name of anonymity: “I used to chuckle to myself, ‘So here comes another John Doe.'”
She said she was skeptical, because she had little reason to trust a white Republican she had never met — but Doar earned respect through his actions.
“We knew if we presented a problem to him, he was not going to just write it down and forget it,” Brown-Wright said. “Not John Doar. His word was his bond.”
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