|I see hero on Farish Street in
downtown Jackson, Mississippi on June 15, 1963. It’s the day of the
funeral of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, killed in Jackson three days
A funeral march has just ended in 100-degree heat, and now several hundred young sweep down Farish Street toward the main white business district singing “This Little Light of Mine” and clapping hands. A battalion of helmeted riot police in short-sleeved shirts and sunglasses form a line to stop them. Deputy Police Chief A. L. Ray orders the demonstrators to go home. The young blacks respond by throwing bricks, stones, and bottles in the direction of the police line. “We want the killer! We want the killer!” the crowd chants. Demonstrators in the rear stomp their feet and shout Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” Police dogs go berserk and are yanked back by their leashes. Cursing police officers draw pistols or began swinging riot clubs. Merchants along Farish Street hurriedly bolt their doors.
Into the no-man’s land between the police and the rioters steps our hero, a forty-two-year old government lawyer in a white shirt and tie. The crowd stops for a moment, stunned as though they were watching a ghost. Then bottles, bricks, and other missiles begin crashing around him. The white-shirted man calls to the crowd: “You’re not going to win anything with bottles and bricks.” He can hardly be heard above the roar of the crowd, which begins to encircle him. A man with a tire iron lifts it and takes aim at the man’s head. An angry black woman yells in his face….The white-shirted man shouts again to the mob, “Is there someone here who can speak for you?” One black youth emerges from the demonstrators and joins our hero in the street. “This man is right,” the youth says, pointing at him.
Our hero addresses the crowd again: “My name is John Doar—D-O-A-R. I’m from the Justice Department, and anybody around here knows I stand for what is right.” He walks toward the mob, begging the crowd to disperse. “Medgar Evers wouldn’t want it this way,” he calls. In an alley, a CORE worker grabs a teenager with a rifle who is taking aim at Doar. “Hold hands with me and help us move these people along,” Doar says to some nearby protesters. A few people link hands and they slowly began to push the mob back from the police line. The crowd finally disperses....
John Michael Doar joined the Justice Department at the close of the Eisenhower Administration. He litigated voter rights cases in the Deep South--“a job,” Doar said, “nobody else wanted.”
Doar rejected standard bureaucratic responses to problems. He learned that building a strong case required being his own investigator. “I was the first Justice Department lawyer who went down South to see what the facts were for myself,” he said. He traveled incognito so as not to alert local whites to the presence of an official from the hated Department of Justice. Wearing khaki pants, work shirts, and old boots, he trekked across cornfields and knocked on doors in search of rejected black voters. “I spent a great deal of each year on the road,” he said in his understated way.
One memorable road trip in 1962 took Doar to the Mississippi campus town of Oxford where—after a night of violent rioting that caused President Kennedy to send in the United States Army--he escorted James Meredith through a crowd of angry, confederate-flag waving whites to the registrar’s office—and watched as Meredith became the first African-American to enroll at Ole Miss.
Doar’s frenetic pace of traveling was legendary. A New York Times on Doar described a dinner of reporters covering the civil rights movement. “John Doar’s in Birmingham,” one reporter announced. “No, he’s in New Orleans,” another reporter said. “No,” chimed in a third, “I saw him here in Jackson.” “You’re all right,” said a fourth reporter. “He was in Birmingham this morning, argued a case in New Orleans this afternoon and arrived in Jackson tonight.”
Wherever he traveled, Doar was known as a great respecter of the
truth. One of his former assistants at Justice and now Touro Law School
Dean, Howard Glickstein, remembers discussing strategy in a voting rights
case with Doar. There were two ways of presenting the case to the
court, Glickstein recalls. One way was to straightforwardly present
the facts. The other way was to blur the facts in a way that somewhat
strengthened the government’s position. When Glickstein suggested
to Doar that they adopt the second approach, Doar sat up straight in his
chair. “Absolutely not!” he said. “You just present the facts
as they are. We represent the United States of America. We
||June 19, 1964: “If we can
crack Mississippi, we can crack segregation anywhere,” the students say.
The Mississippi Summer Project is holding training sessions in Ohio for
the 600 volunteers who will soon enter the Magnolia State to register black
voters. Doar tells the volunteers, “I admire what you intend to do,”
but he warns them that they are at great risk. “There is no federal
police force,” he says.
Two days later, three of those volunteers—two white and one black-- Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney--disappear into the midnight darkness near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The first federal official to learn of the disappearance is John Doar. His phone rings at 1:30 A.M. It is a civil rights staff worker. She tells Doar that the three had left the previous morning to investigate a church bombing in a known “high risk” area. They were supposed to be back by four.
Doar invests the FBI with the power to investigate a possible civil rights violation. The agency launches its investigation, codenamed “Mississippi Burning.” John Proctor is the first FBI agent to arrive on the scene. Neoshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey tells Proctor, “If they’re missing, they hid somewhere, trying to get a lot of publicity out of it.”
The FBI interviews nearly one thousand Mississippians. Half of those interviewed are known or suspected members of the Ku Klux Klan. Neoshoba County remains silent. FBI Major Case Inspector Joseph Sullivan: “The Klan owned the place; in spirit, everyone belonged to the Klan.”
Finally, a Klan informer comes forward. He tells the FBI what happened that June day. He tells of the arrest of the three young men by Deputy Cecil Price on a trumped-up speeding charge; the phone calls from the jail to Klan officials; the arranged release at 10:30 that night; the civil rights worker’s station wagon overtaken by the sheriff’s car and two cars full of Klansmen on a lonely road south of town; the Klansmen pulling the three scared men from their cars; the bullets to the chest.
Federal agents sweep through east-central Mississippi arresting conspirators in connection with the deaths of the three civil rights workers.
John Doar is chosen to head the prosecution. He knows that no person in the history of Mississippi has ever been convicted for assaulting or killing a civil rights worker. The case will be tried before Federal Judge Harold Cox, an ardent segregationist. Doar and Cox had met in several previous voting rights cases. In one case in 1964, Doar argued in the judge’s chambers for a temporary injunction. He said to Cox, ”There’s nothing un-American about blacks wanting to vote.’” Cox responded by calling the black voter applicants “a bunch of chimpanzees.”
Doar sifts through FBI files, talks with potential witnesses, and travels the roads and backroads of Neshoba County. He does his job well.
In the federal courthouse in Meridian, 160 witnesses—jailers, black churchgoers, and Klansmen--tell their stories....
Then Doar sums up for the all-white Mississippi jury:
Members of the Jury, this is an important case. It is important to the government. It's important to the defendants, but most important, it's important to the State of Mississippi. What I say, what the other lawyers say here today, what the Court says about the law will soon be forgotten, but what you twelve people do here today will long be remembered…If you find that these men are not guilty of this conspiracy it would be as true to say that there was no nighttime release from jail by Cecil Price, there were no White Knights [of the Ku Klux Klan], there are no young men dead, there was no murder. If you find that these men are not guilty, you will declare the law of Neshoba County to be the law of the State of Mississippi.
Three days later, the jury announces its verdict: “We, the jury, find the defendant Cecil Ray Price guilty of the charges contained in the indictment.” Six more convictions follow....
Doar speaks almost reverently of “the spirit of Justice” in the sixties. It was, he says, a spirit governed by a “philosophy grounded in hope.” Doar and his colleagues persevered “because it made sense,” not because they thought their work would succeed. Failures and frustrations led to better approaches. “We learned,” Doar says, “you just got to keep going back. We couldn’t change Mississippi from a desk in Washington.”
I asked Doar if he thought what he did in Mississippi was heroic. “I don’t think it’s quite the right word,” he said. “We just knew viscerally that we were doing something that was awfully important. We weren’t trying to be heroes. At the same time, all of us realized that when our lives were almost over we wanted to be able to look back and say, ‘we did our best: we worked as hard and as long as we could.”