Civil Rights Icon John Doar Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

By Andrew Cohen, courtesy UC Berkeley

Civil Rights legend John Doar receives Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

Civil Rights  legend John Doar received Presidential Medal of Freedom– the nation’s highest honor given to civilians – along with author Toni Morrison and musician Bob Dylan. As U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1960-1967, Doar led the federal effort to protect civil rights in the South. He relentlessly pushed to enforce the constitutional ban on racial discrimination in voter registration, filing lawsuits in every county of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Eight Boalt graduates worked under Doar, including 1962 classmates Thelton Henderson, now a U.S. District Court judge. In 1962, Doar escorted James Meredith when he registered as the University of Mississippi’s first Black student. In 1963, he defused a potential riot in Jackson, Mississippi after the funeral for slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers—as police stood guard to prevent protestors from marching downtown. “John proceeded from a very basic and innate sense of justice, of fairness, and of just doing the right thing,” Henderson said. “He did so methodically, with a sense of purpose, and without a need or desire for recognition. No one in the country was more trusted by the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement than John Doar.” In 1964, Doar prosecuted the “Mississippi Burning” killings of three civil rights workers, convicting seven Ku Klux Klan members. His work was also widely credited for helping push through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “In 1960, the United States lived under a dishonest system of self-government,” Doar said. “In several of the southern states, citizens, because of their race, could not even vote. The problem had existed for almost 100 years. In 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the problem was solved.” In 1974, Doar served as Special Counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, which was investigating the Watergate scandal and preparing articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. In private practice, he has worked on complex commercial and personal disputes, including major antitrust, contract, insurance, bank fraud, healthcare, and estate-related litigation. Now 90, Doar lives in New York City and still spends time at his law firm, Doar Rieck Kaley & Mack, where he is senior counsel. “I am no longer actively practicing law, but I am working on several matters,” he said. “I have always worked. It is hard to change.”
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