Other Promised Lands

John Doar was not the Justice Department’s first choice for his position. Yet, his appointment as the number 2 man in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice lasted seven years. After the election in 1960, Doar was a hold over Republican in the Democratic Kennedy administration. Doar, began his work by investigating the plight of Black Americans in the South. Like Joshua and Caleb of the Torah, he went into hostile territory and returned with the determination to reclaim a promised land.

In parshat Sh’lach, twelve “spies” scoped out the promised land. Ten saw danger. Only two, Joshua and Caleb, saw opportunity.

John Doar visited the South to determine if the land was ripe for change. Doar investigated the extent to which civil rights were denied to African Americans. Despite the dire situation, Doar believed that segregation could end. His reconnaissance and leadership helped transform the America.

Doar was the rare white government official in this regard. Others despaired or resisted advocating for civil rights. The Federal Bureau of Investigation enquiries into civil rights abuses were intentionally inept. J. Edgar Hoover believed communists to be in control of the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, Doar tried to engage the FBI’s support as African Americans increasingly advocated for their rights. Even as men, women, and children were jailed, attacked, beaten, and sometimes killed, the FBI’s bureaucratic approach was generally unresponsive to the crisis.

During the early 1960’s, the nation’s leaders were reluctant to engage in promoting civil rights. Democrats wanted to hold onto their support in the South and feared alienating white voters. Initially, the Kennedy Administration had little interest in civil rights. President Kennedy visited southern states to sure up his support among whites. Kennedy was preoccupied with Russia’s challenges to world peace – from the Berlin Wall to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy, seeking a moderate approach, promoted voting rights advocacy as the best way to upending segregation. In pursuit of that plan, Doar uncovered shocking registration data from the South. Some counties in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama had no or nearly no Black registered voters. His research informed the voting rights efforts of Black leaders. Their nonviolent advocacy was confrontational and produced precisely the headlines that the Kennedy administration hoped to avoid.

Doar not only scouted out the situation in the South but also made his presence known. In the years to come, Doar was the rare Government official who put his life on the line for the sake of civil rights. For example, Doar escorted James Meredith through the doors of the University of Mississippi, the first Black man to attend the segregated school. After the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evans, Doar stood alone between the white police and an angry mob of African Americans. With calm reassurance, Doar quelled a possible revolt.

When Doar left his job in 1967, the South was forever changed. His toughness, honesty and diligence helped Blacks gain their rights as citizens. Doar helped guarantee all Americans their rights to vote, to travel, and to be educated. While the task is not yet completed, Doar saw promise in a forbidding land and guided us all toward realizing this nation’s promise of freedom.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame