November 12, 2014 / 3:26 AM / 4 years ago

U.S. civil rights champion John Doar dies

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John Doar, who played a pivotal role in the fight for civil rights as a U.S. Justice Department official in the 1960s and later served as a special counsel in Congress’ investigation of the Watergate scandal, has died at age 92.

U.S. President Barack Obama awards a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom to former U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Doar, who ran the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The New York Times quoted his son Robert as saying he died at his Manhattan home on Tuesday of congestive heart failure.

As assistant attorney general for civil rights from 1960 to 1967, Doar found himself in the middle of the battle to end racial segregation in the U.S. South and ensure voting and other rights for blacks in the region.

He was involved in federal efforts in 1961 to protect the Freedom Riders, young civil rights activists seeking to integrate public bus transportation in the South.

Doar also helped escort James Meredith when he was admitted in 1962 as the first black student at the University of Mississippi in the face of angry protesters.

In addition, he successfully prosecuted the accused killers of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner on civil rights charges.

The three men were killed in Mississippi in 1964 while trying to register black voters as part of “Freedom Summer.” Their deaths helped galvanize support for civil rights legislation and inspired the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning.”

In 1974, the self-described “Lincoln Republican” became chief counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee investigating the Watergate break-in, a scandal that led to the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon.

President Barack Obama, who awarded Doar the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, said on Tuesday he “was one of the bravest American lawyers of his or any era.

“As the face of the Justice Department in the segregated South, John escorted James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. He walked alongside the Selma-to-Montgomery March. He laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,” Obama said in a statement.

“Time and time again,” added Obama, “John put his life on the line to make real our country’s promise of equal rights for all.”

Reporting by Peter Cooney

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