New Richmond native to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom
New Richmond native John Doar, a former civil rights attorney credited with diffusing a possible civil rights-era riot in Jackson, Miss., and who later was involved with the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, soon will receive the nation's h...
New Richmond native John Doar, a former civil rights attorney credited with diffusing a possible civil rights-era riot in Jackson, Miss., and who later was involved with the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, soon will receive the nation's highest civilian honor.
Doar, 90, will be one of 13 people to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. The ceremony date has not been announced.
"I'm just dumbfounded," Doar said in a Leader-Telegram interview Monday. "It's very flattering. This is totally unexpected, and I feel honored."
In a news release, the White House said the Presidential Medal of Freedom is "presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
In the release, Obama said: "These extraordinary honorees come from different backgrounds and different walks of life, but each of them has made a lasting contribution to the life of our nation. They've challenged us, they've inspired us, and they've made the world a better place. I look forward to recognizing them with this award."
Doar is referred to as a "legendary public servant" and leader of federal efforts to protect and enforce civil rights during the 1960s. He was assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
In that capacity, he was instrumental during many major civil rights crises, including single-handedly preventing a riot in Jackson following the funeral of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963.
"The credit belongs to all the attorneys in the Civil Rights Division who worked hard to get an honest system of self-government so everyone felt entitled to vote and could vote," Doar said. "The Voting Act of 1965 (which outlawed discriminatory voting practices) really changed the world. I was proud to be part of it."
Doar played basketball at Princeton University, earned his law degree in California and was practicing law with his father and cousin, the future governor Warren Knowles, in New Richmond when he got a call from two Princeton graduates inviting him to work in the Civil Rights Division.
Among his career highlights:
- Escorting James Meredith to register as the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962. He was at Meredith's side when more than 100 marshals were injured or wounded by vigilantes during protests.
- Prosecuting the "Mississippi Burning" case against whites who murdered three civil rights workers in 1964.
- Diffusing a potential riot in Jackson after the assassination of and funeral for Evers in 1963 by standing between protesters and police.
Doar had met numerous times with Evers, "who gave us names and told us what kind of people we would be talking to. We went back to Washington and prepared discrimination complaints, the first ones filed in Mississippi. That was the beginning, and it had to do with Evers' efforts. I considered him a friend."
"I had to run the operation so it was clear to the people in Mississippi, white or black, that we represented the United States; not the students, not the blacks, but we were going right down the middle," Doar recalled. "That was the only way we could do it and be effective."
Doar admits he likely was a target "of some kind" by those opposed to the equal rights movement.
"You had to be careful and earn respect by being fair. That's what I tried to do," he said.
Doar talks casually about working with John and Robert Kennedy and others of political fame. He later was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee as it investigated the Watergate scandal and considered articles of impeachment against Nixon.
Doar, who lives in New York City, continues to practice law at Doar Rieck Kaley & Mack in New York, although admittedly sparingly.
"This award just proves that if you stay alive long enough, all good things come," he said with a laugh.
"I still call New Richmond home," he added. "I love St. Croix County and northwestern Wisconsin. I am very proud I came from Wisconsin."
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