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Mon, 08.15.1921

John Douglas, Civil Rights Lawyer born

John Douglas

*John W. Douglas was born on this date in 1921. He was a white-American lawyer, political attorney, and civil and human rights activist.

John Woolman Douglas was born in Philadelphia, PA. He graduated from Princeton University in 1943 and served in the Navy during World War II. He received a law degree from Yale University in 1948.  During this time, he married Mary St. John in 1(945). After law school, Douglas attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and received a postgraduate degree in politics, philosophy, and economics.

He worked briefly for the Washington law firm Covington & Burling, where he specialized in civil litigation. In 1951 and 1952, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harold H. Burton. After his clerkship, he returned to Covington. Appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Douglas was assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil division, which represents federal employees, including members of Congress and the Cabinet, in legal disputes.

Douglas had made a name for himself in Kennedy circles in late 1962 when he helped negotiate the release of prisoners held by Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The previous year, the CIA had sponsored an ill-fated attempt to overthrow Castro. Over 1,500 anti-communist Cuban exiles went ashore at the Bay of Pigs, on Cuba's southern underbelly. The exiles were defeated in three days, and most were taken prisoner.  Douglas was part of a four-man committee, including future attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach, that eventually negotiated a $53 million food-and-medicine swap for 1,113 prisoners.  He became the Kennedy administration's point man for the August 1963 March on Washington. He worked closely with March leaders and had a White House mandate to keep the demonstration peaceable.

Douglas's team assisted the march planners in thinking through the day's details, down to the adequacy of toilet facilities on the Mall," Seattle lawyer Drew D. Hansen wrote in "The Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation" (2003), a book on King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial. Douglas "shares historic credit for the orderliness and smoothness and joy of that day," Victor S. Navasky wrote in "Kennedy Justice" (1971), his history of Robert F. Kennedy's Justice Department.

Douglas resigned from the Justice Department in 1966 to work on the unsuccessful re-election campaign of his father, Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Ill.).  In 1968, he became a strategist for the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.).  Afterward, he returned to Covington & Burling and, in 1974 and 1975, was president of the D.C. Bar.

In 1989, Douglas became an election observer in Namibia, which was separating from South Africa.  He was an official observer of the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa.

John W. Douglas, 88, died June 2, 2010, of complications from a stroke.  Politics was his first love, followed closely by music, said his daughter, Kate Douglas Torrey of Chapel Hill, N.C. He was an accomplished pianist and had composed songs while at Princeton.

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