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Jerry Costello

Justice and the Rule of Common Sense
January 18, 2015

Okay, now; let’s have a quick show of hands. How many remember the name of John Doar?
                If you don’t recall it at all, you probably didn’t live through the 1960s, the turbulent days of the civil rights revolution. But if the name stirs a memory or two, you remember a young lawyer who courageously faced down some of the most contentious issues of the time, where they were happening. He was, in fact, “the face of the Justice Department in the South,” as President Obama said a couple of years ago as he presented Doar with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “He was proof that the federal government was listening.”
                John Doar died in November at the age of 92. “Federal Lawyer on Front Lines Against Segregation,” read the headline over his obituary in The New York Times, which begins to tell the story. But it doesn’t give you the whole thing.
                At the time, readers of a certain age will recall, Doar seemed to be everywhere at once. A young country lawyer from Wisconsin, still trim and good-looking, he stood six feet-two and took no guff from anyone. He strode the streets of one southern town after another, always speaking up for justice and the rule of common sense.
                In the words of Roy Reed, who wrote the obit in the Times, it was Doar who:
                ■ Escorted James Meredith in 1962 when he integrated the University of Mississippi;
                ■ Led the prosecution of the men who killed three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964;
                ■ Defused a tense standoff between bottle-throwing civil rights protesters and police with guns drawn in Jackson, Miss.
                “My name is John Doar,” he shouted to the crowd that day. “D-O-A-R. I’m from the Justice Department, and anybody here knows what I stand for is right.” Ever so gradually, the crowd began to melt away.
                Doar worked for several presidential administrations, including that of John F. Kennedy. That seemed particularly right, since it fit with the public image of Kennedy at the time. It was the era of the freedom riders, and Doar was there at their side as they rode across Alabama. He was never physically harmed, but he saw more than his share of violence—which included the severe beating of a Justice Department associate, John Seigenthaler (later the publisher of the Nashville Tennessean).
                Doar was a lifelong Republican, but that didn’t prevent him in 1974 from heading the investigative team which led to the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon—culminating in the president’s eventual resignation from office.
                Opening his own law office in New York, Doar continued in private practice until ultimately stepping down, as senior counsel, in his 80s.
                In 2009, a C-Span interviewer had him explain just how it was that he got so personally involved in the legal campaign during the 1960s to bring about a change in the national mood. 
                “Countless black citizens in the South couldn’t vote,” Doar said, as always a man of few words. “They were second-class citizens from cradle to grave.”
                That explains, too, why John Doar was a true hero to so many people—and why, simply put, he deserves to be remembered today.

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