John Doar, Federal Lawyer on Front Lines Against Segregation, Dies at 92
By ROY REED
Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images
John Doar, a country lawyer from northern Wisconsin who led the federal government’s on-the-ground efforts to dismantle segregation in the South, and who later headed the team that made the case for impeaching President Richard M. Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 92. The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Robert said.
During the most volatile period of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, it was Mr. Doar, along with a federal marshal, who escorted James Meredith when he integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962. It was Mr. Doar who led the successful prosecution of the men who killed three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. And it was Mr. Doar who defused a dramatic standoff between bottle-throwing civil rights protesters and police officers with their guns drawn in Jackson, Miss.
“He was the face of the Justice Department in the South,” President Obama said in 2012 when he presented Mr. Doar with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. “He was proof that the federal government was listening.
In 1974, Mr. Doar, a Republican, was named by Democrats to be chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee investigating Watergate.
Mr. Doar prosecuted some of the most notorious cases of murder and violence in the South in the ’60s, and was instrumental in changing the region’s pattern of race-based politics based on voter discrimination.
As the chief lawyer for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, he was heavily involved in the investigation of the murder of three young civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, in Neshoba County, Miss., in 1964. Seventeen men went on trial in 1967 in federal court in Meridian, Miss., charged under a 19th-century federal law with violating the civil rights of the victims.
Mr. Doar and the prosecution team drew on confessions and the testimony of paid informers who had infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Seven people, including a Neshoba County deputy sheriff and the state head of the Klan, were convicted and sentenced to terms of three to 10 years each.
In 1965, Mr. Doar unobtrusively led the federal presence at the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. He prosecuted three Klansmen who murdered a white volunteer, Viola Liuzzo, on the last night of that march, and they were sentenced to the maximum of 10 years in prison by a federal judge. Mr. Doar successfully argued for a precedent-setting application of the old federal civil rights law in the killing after Alabama juries in a state court refused to convict them of murder.
Mr. Doar repeatedly put his life in danger, never more dramatically than one day in Jackson, Miss. An angry crowd of several hundred black marchers was stopped by police officers with drawn weapons. The police ordered the marchers to disband; they responded with bricks, bottles, stones and curses.
With the situation growing more tense by the second, Mr. Doar, 6 feet 2 inches and still as solid as the school athlete he had been, walked into the 50-yard space separating the two groups and addressed the marchers. Bricks and bottles crashed around his feet. One man stood behind him brandishing a tire iron.
“My name is John Doar — D-O-A-R,” he shouted to the crowd. “I’m from the Justice Department, and anybody here knows what I stand for is right.” That qualified as a full-length speech from the laconic Mr. Doar. At his continued urging, the crowd slowly melted away.
He rode with the Freedom Riders across Alabama in 1961. In Montgomery, he saw his Justice Department associate John Seigenthaler beaten unconscious by a white mob angered by the attempt to integrate the bus station facilities. (Mr. Seigenthaler died in July.)
Mr. Doar was never harmed, but he moved in the midst of violence in numerous racial hot spots across the South.
He accompanied Mr. Meredith when he integrated the University of Mississippi. Mr. Meredith’s presence there touched off a riot that killed two men and left 160 marshals wounded.
Mr. Doar spent the night in Mr. Meredith’s dormitory room while the riot raged outside. He and a federal marshal took Mr. Meredith to the registrar’s office the next morning in a bullet-riddled government car. He lived with Mr. Meredith for several weeks.
Mr. Doar seemed an unlikely hero of the civil rights movement and the impeachment investigation. He was a white Republican, an anomaly in the South when the region was beginning to shift away from the Democratic Party because of its national stand for racial integration.
He was chosen for a leading role in the Watergate investigation because of his credentials as a loyal Republican — a “Lincoln Republican,” he called himself — whose straight-arrow reputation supported his impartiality. The investigation ended with Mr. Nixon’s resignation.
Throughout the Watergate inquiry, Mr. Doar kept his customary low profile. He never appeared on television or wrote a book about the experience. His meticulous preparation was credited with persuading some reluctant Republicans on the committee to support a resolution of impeachment.
Mr. Doar was not the Justice Department’s first choice for the civil rights position. He was offered the post only after several others had turned it down. Thus he found himself in what he came to see as “the best job in Washington.”
He was partly motivated to take the job by what he saw as unfairness to his native Wisconsin in Washington politics, where congressional committees were disproportionately in the hands of conservative Southern Democrats. As he saw it, those Democrats held power because of the systematic disenfranchisement of African-Americans. One of the main aims of his government work was to break down those voting barriers.
“Countless black citizens in the South couldn’t vote,” Mr. Doar said in a C-Span interview in 2009. “They were second-class citizens from cradle to grave. The discrimination was terrible, brutal.”
Mr. Doar left the Justice Department in 1967 and went to work for theBedford Stuyvesant Development and Services Corporation. After working on the Nixon impeachment investigation in 1973 and 1974, he returned to New York and opened a law practice devoted mainly to civil law. The firm became Doar Rieck Kaley & Mack; he continued there as senior counsel into his 80s.
He found himself in the spotlight again when he defended Eastman Kodak against a charge of monopolizing the amateur photography business. During the trial, he learned that one of his co-counsels in the firm of Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine had confessed to failing to turn over a witness’s notes. Mr. Doar immediately notified the judge and the opposing counsel. The jury awarded $3 million to the Kodak competitor that had brought the suit.
After Watergate, Mr. Doar led an investigation into bribery chargesagainst Judge Alcee L. Hastings of Federal District Court in Miami, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter. Judge Hastings was accused of taking a $150,000 bribe in 1981 to set aside a judgment against two brothers who had been convicted of stealing $1 million from a pension fund.
Judge Hastings was acquitted of the bribery charge, but the Judicial Council of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit pursued its own investigation, led by Mr. Doar. He filed a report suggesting that the judge had solicited the bribe and had lied about it under oath during his trial. The House impeached Mr. Hastings, and a 12-member trial committee in the Senate removed him from office. Mr. Hastings was subsequently elected to the House from Florida.
John Michael Doar was born on Dec. 3, 1921, in Minneapolis. He grew up in the nearby town of New Richmond, Wis., where his father, William, was a lawyer and his mother, Mae, was a teacher. He was educated at the St. Paul Academy in St. Paul and at Princeton. His law degree was from the University of California, Berkeley. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was training as a bomber pilot when the war ended.
Mr. Doar went to work for his family’s law firm in New Richmond in 1950. He joined the Justice Department in 1960 during the closing months of the Eisenhower administration. He was first assistant there until 1965, when he became assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division.
He married Anne Leffingwell in 1948. They were divorced in 1973 but later reconciled, and he was caring for her when she died in 2013. He married Patty Ferguson Conroy in 1984; they were divorced in 1996. In addition to his son Robert, a former commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration, he is survived by two other sons, Michael and Burke; a daughter, Mary Gael; 12 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Correction: November 11, 2014
An earlier version of the headline with this obituary described some of John Doar’s work incorrectly. He opposed segregation, not desegregation. The obituary also misstated Mr. Doar’s birth date. It was Dec. 3, 1921 — not Dec. 23.
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.