Dovey Johnson Roundtree (1914-2018): Background information when reading Mighty Justice

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Mighty Justice

My Life in Civil Rights

by Dovey Johnson Roundtree , Katie McCabe

Mighty Justice by Dovey Johnson Roundtree , Katie McCabe X
Mighty Justice by Dovey Johnson Roundtree , Katie McCabe
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    Nov 2019, 304 pages

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Dovey Johnson Roundtree (1914-2018)

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Black and white photo of Dovey Johnson Roundtree standing on courthouse stepsDovey Mae Johnson Roundtree was an African American civil rights activist and attorney who secured one of the most significant victories against Jim Crow segregation, and broke the color barrier of the Women's Bar in Washington D.C. She also served in the Women's Auxiliary Corps during World War II and, in 1961, became one of a select few female ordained ministers in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. Yet when she passed away at the age of 104 in 2018, her name was largely unknown. The re-release of her memoir (first published in 2009 under the title Justice Older Than the Law), now titled Mighty Justice and co-written with award-winning journalist Katie McCabe, seeks to rectify that lapse in the public consciousness.

Roundtree was born in 1914 in Charlotte, North Carolina. As a child, she lived with her mother, siblings and grandparents in a household constantly under threat of violence by the Ku Klux Klan. (The first husband of Roundtree's grandmother, Rachel Graham, was murdered by a Klansman, and Graham herself was badly injured in a second attack.) Encouraged by her formidable grandmother and her mentor Mary McLeod Bethune, Roundtree enrolled at Spelman College in 1934 with plans to become a doctor. After graduating in 1938, she taught school for four years before joining the Women's Auxiliary Corps in 1942. She recruited a number of other African American women for the Corps and successfully argued against segregation in the cafeteria of the army base where she was stationed.

From 1947-1950, Roundtree studied law at Howard University (where Thurgood Marshall was one of her professors). Upon graduating, she began practicing with a former classmate, Julius Winfield Robertson. In 1955, Roundtree and Robertson took on the case of Sarah Keys, an Auxiliary Corps member suing the Carolina Coach Company after she was forced to relinquish her seat on the bus to a white officer. They took the case to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and argued that the precedent established by Brown v. the Board of Education should be applied to their case. They won, and the ICC banned segregation on transportation engaging in interstate travel (though the ruling went largely unenforced until 1961). This was the first of many civil rights cases for Roundtree, who became the first Black woman to join the Women's Bar in Washington D.C. in 1962.

In 1964, Roundtree defended a Black man, Raymond Crump, implicated in the murder of a white women, Mary Pinchot Meyer (believed to be a mistress of JFK). She argued that her client was significantly smaller than the suspect identified by a witness, and also that he was incapable of committing the crime due to a diminished mental capacity. Crump was acquitted. Roundtree's coauthor Katie McCabe has declared this the "most sensational murder case of the decade."

Roundtree continued to practice law until she retired in 1996. The initial release of her memoir in 2009 was commemorated by Michelle Obama, who wrote, "It is on the shoulders of people like Dovey Johnson Roundtree that we stand today, and it is with her commitment to our core ideals that we will continue moving toward a better tomorrow."

by Lisa Butts

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, courtesy of the New York Times

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This article relates to Mighty Justice. It first ran in the October 30, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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