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John Doar, top civil rights attorney, dies at 92

President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to John Doar, who handled civil rights cases in the 1960's, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

AP / Charles Dharapak, File

WASHINGTON - John Doar, a top Justice Department civil rights lawyer in the 1960s who was at the center of key battles to protect the rights of black voters and integrate universities in the South, died Tuesday at age 92.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Burke Doar.

Doar, a Republican, was a Justice Department civil rights lawyer from 1960 to 1967, serving under the administrations of President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and rising to the position of assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division.

In 1962, he escorted James Meredith, the first black student to enroll in the University of Mississippi, onto the campus while then-Gov. Ross Barnett and angry crowds sought to keep the school segregated. Doar later was the lead prosecutor in the federal trial arising from the deaths of three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. Those killings inspired the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning."

Later in his career, he served as special counsel to the House of Representatives as it investigated the Watergate scandal, where he recommended the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Among the lawyers on the impeachment committee staff was Hillary Rodham, now Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state.

Working for the federal government at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Doar challenged discriminatory policies in Southern states that curtailed minority access to the voting booth and state universities.

In awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, President Barack Obama credited Doar with laying the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which expanded rights at the ballot box to millions of black Americans and other minorities.

In a statement, President Obama called Doar "one of the bravest American lawyers of his or any era."

"John put his life on the line to make real our country's promise of equal rights for all," said Obama. "Without John's courage and perseverance, Michelle and I might not be where we are today."

In a 2009 interview with C-SPAN, Doar described the election of Obama as "rewarding" and marveled at the progress toward racial equality since 1960.