Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights by Dovey Johnson Roundtree with Katie McCabe

Takeaway: Part of the importance of Black History Month is focusing on the less well-known figures because so much has been repressed or forgotten. 

So many historical figures have made so many small contributions to our world that it is hard to believe anyone could have done so much. And at the same time, the fact that they are not more well-known is a testament to how our memories are fickle. I was unaware of Dovey Johnson Roundtree, and I honestly do not remember why or when the book ended up on my to-read list. But I picked it up this month because it is on sale.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree was born in 1914 and lived until 2018 at 104 years old. This autobiography was written with the help of Katie McCabe and published in 2009 under the title Justice Older than the Law. It was then reissued in 2019 with the new title Mighty Justice. Unfortunately, by the time she started working on her autobiography, she had lost her sight due to complications from diabetes. But ten videos of her were recorded by the VisionaryProject , giving a good sense of who she was and what she was like in her early 90s.

When she was four, her father died in the flu epidemic of 1918, and her mother and sisters moved in with her grandparents. Her grandfather was a pastor and well-educated. Her grandmother was a guiding force that is frequently mentioned in her autobiography but was disabled due to injuries from fighting off an attempted rape by a white field overseer when she was a young teen. Dovey Johnson Roundtree came of age during the Great Depression but attended Spellman College by working three jobs. Through the kindness of people around her, she graduated when even those three jobs were insufficient to keep her in school. She taught middle school for two years to earn enough money to support her family but then moved to Washington, DC, and began working as a researcher for Mary McCloud Bethune, whom she met because of her grandmother. Mary McCloud Bethune was one of the most influential women in Washington as the head of the National Council for Negro Women and one of FDR’s informal Black Cabinet. Bethune ensured that during WWII, the Woman’s Army Corp, Black women would be included in officer training. Dovey Johnson was included in the first class and was one of the first women to be made an Army officer. Due to her push against military segregation, she was blackballed but was not court marshaled, unlike several others. She spent all of WWII working to recruit Black women into the military and working on policy groups for desegregation and women’s rights issues in the military.

In 1947, after working in the military, she entered Howard Law School after catching a vision for using the law in civil rights in her brief work with A. Philip Randolph and labor organizing. Because of its location in DC, Howard Law School was the site of many preparations for the civil rights legal cases at the Supreme Court.

Roundtree and Julius Robertson, one of her law school classmates, started a small law firm in 1952 after they graduated. During that first year of their new law firm, they took on Sarah Keys, who sued the Carolina Coach bus company after being thrown off the bus for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Keys was in military uniform, and this was after the 1946 Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregated bus travel was unconstitutional. But there was no enforcement of the 1946 ruling. Roundtree and Robertson sued the bus companies for violating the contract and for having Sarah Keys arrested for refusing to move seats. They lost the case in state court and appealed it to the Interstate Commerce Commission administrative judges. For Dovey Johnson Roundtree, this was not just an important case but mirrored her experience of being ejected from a bus in the same type of incident when she was a military recruiter in 1943. After three years of hearings, legal maneuvers, and appeals (in 1955), the full ICC ruled that

“We conclude that the assignment of seats on interstate buses, so designated as to imply the inherent inferiority of a traveler solely because of race or color, must be regarded as subjecting the traveler to unjust discrimination, and undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage…We find that the practice of defendant requiring that Negro interstate passengers occupy space or seats in specified portions of its buses, subjects such passengers to unjust discrimination, and undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage, in violation of Section 216 (d) of the Interstate Commerce Act and is therefore unlawful.”

The Sarah Keys ruling gave interstate Bus companies 60 days to implement desegregation. Still, again, the ICC did not enforce its ruling. It took until the 1960 Boynton v. Virginia case and President Kennedy’s intervention with the ICC after the Freedom Riders for federal enforcement of the various rulings over 15 years since the Morgan v Virginia ruling was implemented. Rosa Parks’ famous refusal to move her bus seat happened one week after the Sarah Keyes ICC ruling.

After the Sarah Keyes case, Roundtree and Robertson took on many negligence and injury suits. One of the cases against a federal psychiatric facility resulted in the maximum award allowed under the law at the time ($25,000), and Roundtree began to teach other lawyers about personal injury law. According to the book, that suit was viewed as a significant turning point when Black clients started believing that Black lawyers could win in federal counts of DC in front of White judges.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree should be celebrated if those had been her only legal battles. But she was also well known as a criminal defense lawyer, especially Ray Crump. Crump was accused of murdering Mary Pinchot Meyer, a well-known painter who had an ongoing affair with JFK, including while he was president. As is discussed in the book, the sensational issues around Meyer, including her marriage and divorce to a senior leader of the CIA and her diary, which detailed her affair with President Kennedy, were not at issue during the trial. Still, they did make the case more difficult because the FBI and others withheld evidence from Roundtree. That case led to Roundtree being appointed to several high and low-profile indigent defense cases.

In 1961, her law partner died unexpectedly, and Rountree began reevaluating her career and trajectory. While not leaving her work as a lawyer, she started seminary and was among the first women to be ordained in the AME church. She had been a regular speaker since her time as a military recruiter. And her faith had been an essential part of her life all along. But her ordination did shift her focus around justice. Toward the end of her legal career, she focused on child welfare and family law. Throughout her career, she had been the pro-bono legal counsel for the Council for Negro Women and then the senior council for the AME. She continued to preach after her blindness forced her to retire from the law in 1996.

I am continually reminded of how big the civil rights movement was in the US. Yet, so many figures are not well known. And I keep being reminded that Christian faith was central to many civil rights leaders. This book (I alternated between the Kindle and Audiobook versions) is well worth reading.

Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights by Dovey Johnson Roundtree with Katie McCabe Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com audiobook

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