Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The White Man In The Picture

The face of the civil rights movement was Dr. Martin Luther King. Literally and figuratively.

What other person who played a huge role in the struggle has an instantly recognizable face? Everyone knows the name Rosa Parks - how many people know know what she looked like?

And so it was with the picture that's on the posters that have been hanging around Jadwin Gym the last few weeks.

The black man in the picture - colored, as he was called when the picture was first taken, back Oct. 1, 1962 - is named James Meredith, who along with Parks is probably the second most well-known person from the movement. Meredith, as pretty much everyone knows, was the first black student at the University of Mississippi, and his integration of the school - and the violence that accompanied it - are considered cornerstones of the civil rights era.

His name is a key part of any historical text of what happened back then. His face, though, wasn't one that TigerBlog immediately put with the name.

The white man in the picture is in the top, oh, 10 or so of people who impacted the movement. His face isn't familiar, and for some reason, his name isn't either, because for some shocking reason, he hasn't been as prominent in history books as he should be.

In fact, TigerBlog had never heard of him until one day about 10 years ago when he wrote a story about the white man and his life, as remarkable a life as anyone TB has ever met has lived.

The picture that's on the poster is also on Meredith's Wikipedia page, only the white man is cropped out of it. This is the picture that TB has seen a million times, the one without the white man.

When he saw the one of the white man, he was struck by the sheer courage that it took for the white man to stand next to Meredith and walk onto a campus where there existed such institutional, entrenched, multi-generational hatred for Southern black and Northern whites, let alone the two of them walking together.

And yet that's not what is so awe-inspiring about the white man.

It's the fact that as he glances slightly to his left the look on his face is so matter-of-fact, so unemotional. Just imagine, however, what it is he sees as he glances, what is over the camera's shoulder. Everywhere he looks, there is a mob of people determined to make it clear that neither he nor the black man are welcome, with elements of the mob willing to escalate from words to violence.

This is where the picture is most fascinating. The white man's face is screaming to the mob "you are not going to bother me, you are not going to stop me, you are not going to touch him, you have no idea what you are up against."

The white man in the picture is named John Doar.

He is a 1944 Princeton graduate, one who played basketball for the Tigers. He was born in Minnesota 90 years and six days ago, so far away from the world that he would impact so deeply, and somehow so anonymously.

He was a lawyer, a graduate of Cal-Berkeley's law school, and he walked away from private practice to join Robert F. Kennedy's in the justice department. It's how he got involved in the civil rights movement in the first place.

He worked tirelessly in that cause, and not just with James Meredith. He prosecuted several of the highest profile cases of the time, including the federal case against the people accused in the lynching of three white civil rights workers in Mississippi, which inspired the movie "Mississippi Burning."

He helped write the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which was the legislation that the entire movement built to and which was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Beyond that, he was also a key counsel for the House committee during the famous hearings that investigated the Watergate break-in.

When TB spoke with Doar for the first time, he couldn't help but notice how he downplayed his life's achievements, how he basically summed it all up by saying simply it "was the right thing to do."

A few years later, TB nominated Doar for the NCAA's Inspiration Award, which he won. TB still has the handwritten note that Doar wrote him, thanking him for the nomination.

John Doar speaks on campus tomorrow night, at 7:30 in Dodds Auditorium inside Richardson Hall, as part of the Princeton Varsity Club's Jake McCandless Speaker Series.

The lecture is free. The speaker is priceless.

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