Deputy Attorney General James Cole used his first major appearance in the Justice Department Great Hall on Tuesday to praise a former Assistant Attorney General who played a major role in the civil rights movement.
The No. 2 official at the DOJ lauded John Doar for his service to Civil Rights Division as a First Assistant from 1960 to 1965 and Assistant Attorney General from 1965 to 1967. Doar was intimately involved in some of the biggest civil rights matters of the 1960s, often appearing in the streets and courtrooms of Mississippi to fight for the rights of blacks.
Cole noted that Doar accompanied James Meredith in 1962 as he became the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi and successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for the lynching of three civil rights activists in 1964. The lynching case was the inspiration for the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”
“I’m thrilled at the opportunity I have to be here to celebrate the history of the Civil Rights Division and to honor a man who frankly was one of my heroes growing up — John Doar — for what he has done,” Cole said.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez of the Civil Rights Division also paid tribute to Doar, thanking him “for setting the bar so high for everyone.” He said he was “mesmerized” by “The Manual of the Civil Rights Division,” which Doar penned in 1965. Perez said he would make the tome available to those interesting in reading it.
“I think in order for us to understand our job and understand our critical mission, it’s important for us to understand our legacy,” Perez said.
The Civil Rights Division was established in 1957 after the enactment of that year’s Civil Rights Act. Doar said the division had only about 35 lawyers in its first couple of years. And a lot of those lawyers worked on matters that weren’t part of division’s core mission, he said.
But the former Assistant Attorney General said the division was beefed up in the 1960s and renewed its focus on protecting civil rights. Doar recalled at a tribute to Robert F. Kennedy on Friday that the former Attorney General was a driving force behind the federal government’s increased involvement in civil rights issues in the 1960s.
Doar, who helped draft the Voting Rights Act of 1965, said he was proud that the work of the Civil Rights Division in the 1960s made it possible for a black person to be elected president in 2008 and for black people to freely participate in that election.
“And [the 2008 election] to me proved that through the work of everybody who worked from ‘60 to ‘65 on voting that did something that was very worthwhile in this country because it converted a dishonest to an honest system of self-government,” Doar said.