Today marks the 56th anniversary of the assassination of one of my heroes, the civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He was shot down in his own driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, on the night of June 12, 1963, with his wife and children inside waiting for him to return home. Evers, another man that far too few know about, was the first field secretary for the NAACP in the state of Mississippi, a position that made him a marked man in the racially charged climate of the Jim Crow South. Because of his civil rights activities, the Evers family had endured years of death threats before that fateful June night, but as Medgar once said, he would “die gladly if that would make a better future” for his children.
After Evers’ assassination, many hundreds of people turned out for his funeral three days later on a brutally hot Mississippi day. All of them mourned. Many of them were angry. As the funeral procession was beginning to disperse, a large group of local black citizens began to gather near a line of Jackson police in full riot gear. They began to heckle the officers and then to throw bottles and rocks. The atmosphere was charged by the heat, racial injustice, and the frustration of a population agonizing over the loss of one of their own. As the crowd closed in on the police, the situation was just moments from turning into yet another tragedy.
Then a man stood up.
He was wearing a white shirt and tie, with the sleeves rolled up a bit because of the unbearable heat. He walked directly past the line of police and toward the approaching crowd of angry blacks. He raised his hands and said, “I am John Doar. I am from the Justice Department, and anybody around here knows I stand for what is right.”
And many in the crowd did know him. From his position as an attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Doar had worked alongside men like Medgar Evers to promote many causes of equal rights across the South. He had worked to integrate the University of Mississippi the previous year, and before that, had been involved in protecting the Freedom Riders in Alabama. The people in the crowd that day knew that Doar was a man of integrity, and when he promised them justice and that he would help to complete the work of his friend Medgar, they believed him. There were no more rocks and bottles, just silence as the crowd slowly made their way home.
John Doar was involved directly or indirectly with nearly every major civil rights movement event in the 1960s, and for his contributions to equality for his fellow man, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. During the award ceremony, President Barack Obama paid tribute to him by saying, “John Doar was 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.”
And yet, if you ask around, not many have heard of this great American—which is a shame, because we can learn so much from his story. Too often today, “standing up for something” doesn’t actually mean “doing something.” We fire off a few Facebook posts or tweets about how certain things need to change, but we don’t actively do anything about it. We complain to our friends about injustices in society, but we don’t actually promote real change with our actions. John Doar knew that when he walked into the “no man’s land” between the protestors and police that day, he could very well be caught in a crossfire that could end his life. And yet he stood up. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I hope that we soon remember that the changes we seek sometimes require us to roll up our sleeves and actually put ourselves in tough situations. In the end, words can only do so much.
Jason Kamler grew up in Johnstown, PA, and attended the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown where he majored in secondary education. He has a masters degree in education from Frostburg State University, and has been teaching high school social studies for the last 13 years. His loves include his wife, two children, tennis, history, politics, and Pittsburgh sports.