A Champion of Civil Rights: John Doar Awarded the Medal of Freedom

May 29, 2012

The following post appears courtesy of Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez.

Today, former Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division John Doar was awarded the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor bestowed by the President of the United States.  Mr. Doar was one of 13 men and women selected by President Barack Obama to receive the Medal of Freedom, and I, along with Attorney General Eric Holder and Congressman John Lewis, had the privilege of honoring him at the White House ceremony this afternoon. 

Mr. Doar served as Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division from 1960 through 1967, and was a legendary public servant and leader of federal efforts to protect and enforce civil rights.  Risking his life to confront the injustices around him, he was instrumental during many major civil rights crises, including singlehandedly preventing a riot in Jackson, Mississippi, following the funeral of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evars in 1963, as well as escorting James Meredith in repeated attempts to register as the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. 

As President Obama described during the ceremony this afternoon:

It was a scorching hot day in 1963, and Mississippi was on the verge of a massacre.  The funeral procession for Medgar Evers had just disbanded, and a group of marchers was throwing rocks at a line of equally defiant and heavily-armed policemen.  And suddenly, a white man in shirtsleeves, hands raised, walked towards the protestors and talked them into going home peacefully.  And that man was John Doar.  He was the face of the Justice Department in the South.  He was proof that the federal government was listening.  And over the years, John escorted James Meredith to the University of Mississippi.  He walked alongside the Selma-to-Montgomery March.  He laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In the words of John Lewis, “He gave [civil rights workers] a reason not to give up on those in power.”  And he did it by never giving up on them.  And I think it's fair to say that I might not be here had it not been for his work.

Mr. Doar brought notable civil rights cases, including obtaining convictions for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, against difficult odds.  He also led the effort to enforce the right to vote and implement the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten violently as a Freedom Rider and a Selma marcher more than 40 years ago, has said, “[John Doar] was our link to the federal government….He gave us a reason not to give up on those in power….People would always say, 'Call John Doar.  John Doar could reach Bobby Kennedy.’”  Mr. Doar was indeed considered a critical lifeline by civil rights workers in the Deep South. 

We were very fortunate to have Mr. Doar as our keynote speaker during the Civil Rights Division’s commemorative event last year as well as at the 50th anniversary event of Robert F. Kennedy’s swearing-in as our nation’s 64th Attorney General.  At age 90, Mr. Doar continues to practice law at Doar Rieck Kaley & Mack in New York.  Mr. Doar remains one of the greatest heroes of the Civil Rights Division and of the struggle to ensure equal rights for all people.  His commitment to protect the core values of liberty and democracy, institutional knowledge, and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement remind us of how truly important our work here is.