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A Hero For Justice

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ivy Black History Feature: "A Hero For Justice" [by: Brett Hoover]

By: Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It was nearly 50 years ago that a small-town lawyer from Wisconsin found himself at the violent epicenter of a social revolution in a strange and distant land.

The lawyer was John Doar.

The revolution was the civil rights movement.

The land was the American South.

"The story of John Doar needs to be told," says John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and battered hero of that era. "As a nation and as a people, we wouldn't be where we are today without John Doar."

John Doar is now 88, in good health and all but retired from the New York City law firm he founded. He is not what you would call famous, inside or outside Wisconsin.
But he is legendary, a distinctive historical character, tall and tough and taciturn, abruptly thrust into two postwar political earthquakes: the overthrow of Jim Crow, when Doar worked the Southern states for the Justice Department and was a central figure in many of the iconic events of the age; and the fall of Richard Nixon, when Doar served as the top attorney for the House committee investigating Watergate.

"Nobody could be luckier," Doar says of his legal career.

It's fair to say Doar is better known to some Americans for his cameo in Watergate than for his long slog as a civil rights official in the 1960s.

But it's his civil rights work that is arguably Doar's real legacy and the source of his mystique as a public servant of understated grit. To his discomfort, comparisons to Gary Cooper and Marshal Matt Dillon have been a staple of Doar coverage over the years.

"My hero," says 87-year-old newspaperman Bill Minor, who in 1963 watched Doar defuse a potential riot in Jackson, Miss. after the assassination and funeral of the NAACP's Medgar Evers.

Minor wrote an account of the incident under the title, "The Day John Doar Saved Mississippi." Tie knotted, shirt sleeves rolled up, Doar stepped between a cordon of itchy-fingered lawmen and angry black protesters, announced himself as a federal official and talked the demonstrators into dispersing. It was 103 degrees. Reporters were certain troopers and deputies were going to open fire at any moment, sparking a massacre.

"It wasn't all that much," Doar says during a long interview in his law office.

"Kids started to throw rocks. That's when I thought it could get bad if it didn't stop. I told them my name and (said) 'Everybody knew I stood for what was right.' It was corny," says Doar with a sheepish grin.

"They should have built a monument to him" in Mississippi, says Minor, who covered the state for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

To read the rest of this story in its entirety, as found in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, please click here.