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John W. Douglas, 88

John W. Douglas, a lawyer who helped organize the March on Washington, dies

Mr. Douglas worked at the Justice Dept.
Mr. Douglas worked at the Justice Dept. (AP - AP)
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By Timothy R. Smith
Sunday, June 6, 2010

John W. Douglas, 88, a lawyer who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and was involved in the release of prisoners after the Bay of Pigs invasion, died June 2 at the Grand Oaks assisted living facility in the District. He had complications from a stroke.

Appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Mr. 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.

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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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. More than 1,500 anti-communist Cuban exiles went ashore at the Bay of Pigs, on Cuba's southern underbelly. The exiles were roundly defeated in three days, and most were taken prisoner.

Mr. 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.

John Woolman Douglas was born Aug. 15, 1921, in Philadelphia. 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. After law school, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Kennedy (D-N.Y.). Afterward, he returned to Covington & Burling and in 1974 and 1975 was president of the D.C. Bar.

In 1989, Mr. 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.

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.

He married Mary St. John in 1945. She died in 2007.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include a son, Peter Douglas of New York; a brother; a half sister; four grandchildren; and one great-grandson.


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