The quiet authority of John Doar, a towering figure of the civil rights movement
by John Fleming
Editor at large
Nov 21, 2010 | 4588 views |  2 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
John Doar puts a lot of value in the softly spoken word. He doesn’t bark or scold, he could never be accused of thundering orders. He merely explains in a gentle way that carries forward an almost subliminal passion. It is a talent that has served him, and the nation, well.

Witness the closing arguments in the 1967 trial of men in Philadelphia, Miss., accused of killing three civil rights workers in 1964. Doar, then the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department and the lead prosecutor in the case, knew he had a tough case to sell.

Despite the strong evidence he had in this earlier example of American terrorism, he knew he would be standing in front of an all-white jury in apartheid-era Mississippi.

So he searched for the most compelling words he could find. At first, he turned to the law library. But the legalese wasn’t working. This demanded going to another level, to a place that would offer a deeper reflection of the sense of the horrors dished out to three young men in Neshoba County, Miss., during Freedom Summer 1964.

And so it was that he settled upon passages from Judge Robert Jackson’s closing arguments in the Nuremberg trials in 1946.

Calm but passionate language, rife with poetry and sprinkled with Shakespeare; it worked in the aftermath of Nazi Germany and it worked for John Doar in deepest Mississippi during its own time of terror.

Doar was at Emory Law School last week, where he recounted the murders of “the boys,” as most Southerners of a certain age refer to the men who lost their lives that summer, as well as plenty of other instances from that dark time. That includes the slaying of Viola Liuzzo outside Selma in 1965, the assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, and James Meredith’s unwelcome reception at Ole Miss in 1962.

Doar was at Emory as part of the National Civil Rights Access to Justice Forum. It wasn’t an overflowing crowd; the auditorium was filled mostly with law students, lawyers and a scattering of people who knew the man’s history.

To the public, he’s not a rock star. In fact, you have to root around in history to get an appreciation of what a towering figure of the civil rights movement he was.

And, you might say, that’s his fault. To which he would almost certainly say, “that’s fine.” For here is a magnificent man of modesty. Happy out of the spotlight, uncomfortable, it seems, anywhere beyond a quiet one-on-one conversation. If you ever do manage to put him before an audience, expect praise and thanksgiving to all involved in bringing about the greatest social movement of the 20th century. He will downplay his part.

Especially when he deserves it.

Bring up one particularly frightening knife-edged moment in the aftermath of the killing of Evers and he waves his hands around, trying to make the heroics go away as if they are annoying southern Mississippi gnats.

But they pester him anyhow, because what Doar did in Jackson was not only courageous, it was smart.

Two sides had lined up that day, the police and a growing crowd of blacks wondering just how to express frustration over a society that was crushing them.

The situation was critical, but just short of explosive, when Doar came upon the scene. The Jackson police seem to be behaving professionally, Doar explained, making the possibility of Selma-style stupidity appear remote. (Years later, he would say in his interview for the documentary Eyes On the Prize, “I think the thing that really brought disgrace into focus was Selma in 1965.”) But when undisciplined, unprofessional, eager-to-get-in-on-the-action sheriff’s deputies showed up, Doar knew trouble was a thrown brick or Molotov cocktail away.

As the riot began to take hold, Doar — small-town Wisconsin lawyer turned Justice Department civil rights enforcer — strode his tall and lanky frame out into the midst of it.

If you’ve ever been in a riot, you might have noticed there is a moment just after its birth when the mass at hand hasn’t completely made up its mind. Everyone is standing there, waiting for the next bottle to drop. When it does, all hell generally breaks loose.

Unless someone owns that moment. That’s what John Doar did. The quiet man of authority confronted the angry crowd, told them who he was, that he was on their side, wisely recruited familiar faces from the ranks to join him, and put an end to the whole, potentially blood-soaked affair.

But really, he will tell you, it was not that big a deal at all. It was nothing.

And so you probably don’t know much about Doar, the first assistant to Burke Marshall, Robert Kennedy’s right-hand man on civil rights matters and later assistant attorney general for civil rights. He’s even modest about being invited to John and Robert Kennedy’s strategic effort to upend our Jim Crow society. It was a job, he insists, he got only because no one else would take it.

Well, if that’s true, then the nation got very lucky, indeed.

John Doar is the moral man, that rare person we’ve always heard about, who does not allow evil to prevail simply because he does something about it. He never sat by in silence. He quietly, but forcefully, spoke up.

John Fleming is The Star’s editor at large.
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