ERIC TUCKER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — John Doar, a top Justice Department civil rights lawyer in the 1960s who was at the center of key battles to protect the rights of black voters and integrate universities in the South, died Tuesday at age 92.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Burke Doar.
Doar was a Justice Department civil rights lawyer from 1960 to 1967, serving in the final months of the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and then staying on during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He rose to the position of assistant attorney general in charge of the department’s Civil Rights Division and challenged discriminatory policies in Southern states that curtailed minority access to the voting booth and state universities.
A Republican who worked for the federal government at the height of the civil rights movement, Doar played important roles in some of the pivotal moments of that cause.
In 1962, he escorted James Meredith, the first black student to enroll in the University of Mississippi, onto the campus while then-Gov. Ross Barnett and angry crowds sought to keep the school segregated. He helped Meredith settle into his dormitory on a campus roiled by violent riots that left two dead.
He later was the lead prosecutor in the federal trial arising from the deaths of three civil rights workers who were fatally shot in 1964. A federal jury returned guilty verdicts against some defendants, but acquitted others. Those killings inspired the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning.”
“This was the first time that white persons were convicted for violent crimes against blacks in Mississippi. It was a historic verdict,” Doar said in a 2009 C-SPAN interview.
In a statement Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder called Doar a “giant in the history of the rights movement” as well as “a personal hero and an embodiment of what it means to be a public servant.” President Barack Obama described him as “one of the bravest American lawyers of his or any era.”
“Time and time again, John put his life on the line to make real our country’s promise of equal rights for all,” Obama said.
Later in his career, Doar served as special counsel to the House of Representatives as it investigated the Watergate scandal, where he recommended the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
In awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, Obama credited Doar with laying the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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