Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Civil Rights Lawyer

On August 1, 1952, Private Sarah Keys was traveling on the bus from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to her family home in Washington, North Carolina. Her father told her to be sure to get on a bus that made no changes, so the bus driver would not harass her. However, her bus did stop in a tiny town to change drivers, and the new driver woke her and told her to leave her seat for a white Marine. When she said she would prefer to stay in her seat, the police arrived, removed her from the bus and put her in jail, and in the morning she was found guilty of disorderly conduct and fined $25 (around $261 today). Incensed by her treatment, her father connected her with Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Julius Winfield Robertson, the legal partners who would represent her in the case Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. Roundtree had a similar experience when she was thrown off a bus she was riding in Miami while she was working as a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) (Roundtree, 124). Roundtree and Robertson sued for violation of the Interstate Commerce Act’s ban on “unreasonable prejudice,” false arrest that violated Keys’ right to equal treatment under the 14th Amendment, breach of contract of interstate passage, and for mental anguish. Roundtree then contacted a friend of hers in the press and announced the case they were pursuing with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) (Roundtree, 131).

Six days before Rosa Parks’ protest on the bus in Montgomery, Roundtree and Robertson won the case for Keys. The ICC wrote there was, “undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage” in violation of the Interstate Commerce Act. “The disadvantage to a traveler who is assigned accommodations or facilities so designated as to imply his inherent inferiority solely because of his race must be regarded under present condition as unreasonable.” It was a landmark case for desegregation, and interstate travel, and one of the highlights of Dovey Roundtree’s legal career. It was, however, typical of her life and career, which she devoted to civil rights and service to others and her community.

[Mary McLeod Bethune at a luncheon at the First WAC Training Center, Fort Des Moines, Iowa, with Captain Dovey M. Johnson on the right, ca. 1943-1945] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c32477

Dovey Mae Johnson lost her father when she was five in the 1918 Flu Pandemic. She and her mother moved to live with her grandmother and grandfather near Charlotte, North Carolina. Her family focused on education throughout her youth, and her mother moved with her to Atlanta so she could study at Spelman College. After her graduation, she taught for a few years, then in 1942 joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) as one of only 40 African American officers in the entire corps, another of her many firsts. While a WAAC, she insisted that the then-integrated black officers not be separated into a “Jim Crow regiment” and offered to resign if the plan went forward; the plan was scrapped in face of her opposition (Roundtree, 69). She married William Roundtree, a Morehouse student she met while at Spelman, but the marriage was brief. She moved to Washington, D.C. and entered Howard University on the GI Bill to study law; the professor who had the greatest impact on her was James M. Nabrit, who was also a lead counsel for the NAACP at the time of Bolling v. Sharpe and Brown v. Board of Education. She passed the D.C. bar in 1951 and went into practice with her former classmate and study partner, Julius Winfield Robertston. When they started their practice, both held down other jobs to pay their expenses, and early clients paid for their work in barter. Ms. Roundtree recalled a client paying her to write a will for a fee of eggs, collard greens and red peppers (Roundtree, 121). When Private Sara Keys met with Ms. Roundtree and Mr. Robertson, it was their first major case. Roundtree saw the case, an important step in dismantling Jim Crow in public transportation, as one of her greatest legacies.

She felt a calling to the church and began studying for the ministry, while maintaining her practice with Robertson until he died suddenly in 1961. She continued to make firsts; she was the first African American woman to join the D.C. Women’s Bar Association in 1962, which met with opposition at the time. She was one of the first women ministers be ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. In 1964, she took up the second important case of her career, United States v. Ray Crump, for a fee of one dollar. She defended the man she described as “abject and pitiable in his circumstances” and incapable of planning and carrying out the murder of which he was accused (Roundtree, 188). Mary Pinchot Meyer, a prominent Washington socialite, was shot and killed along the C&O Canal in Georgetown at noon, and Crump, who was nearby, was accused. The case seemed stacked against him; the government had witnesses and 57 exhibits. Roundtree said that in the beginning she was “dubious about his innocence, so persuasive were the facts the government had arrayed against [Crump]” (Roundtree, 190). She won the case and Crump’s freedom with a careful dismantling of the evidence, particularly the evidence of the eyewitnesses. One admitted he had not gotten a close look at the suspect; the other, a jogger who said he had seen the suspect while passing him at a distance of 120 feet. The jogger said the suspect was 5 feet 8 and weighed 185 pounds, whereas Crump was five feet three and weighed 130 pounds—a difference that was immediately obvious at a distance. In her brief closing argument, Ms. Roundtree noted that fact, and told the jury, “I leave this little man in your hands.”

She continued working with her practice, focusing on family law, and mentoring and coaching young lawyers as her teachers at Spelman and Howard coached her, until she finally retired to Charlotte. Dovey Johnson Roundtree said, “Throughout my life, I have found that there is always somebody who would be the miracle-maker in your life if you but believe.”  Throughout the year, and especially during Black History Month, Ms. Roundtree is an exemplar of that kind of miracle-maker.

*all McCabe quotations are from Mighty Justice.

Resources

KF373.R68 M34 2019 Roundtree, Dovey Johnson and Katie McCabe. Mighty justice : my life in civil rights. 

KF373.Р686 М34 2009  McCabe, Katie. Justice older than the law : the life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree.

VAO 4725-4728 Roundtree, Dovey Johnson. Dovey Roundtree oral history, 2003-02-22 : National Visionary Leadership Project / interview conducted by Renee Poussaint.

KF27.J859 1976b United States. Congress. House. Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee on Criminal Justice. Privacy of rape victims : hearing before the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Ninety-fourth Congress, second session, on H.R. 14666 and other bills … July 29, 1976.

E842.1.B85 1998 Burleigh, Nina. A very private woman: the life and unsolved murder of presidential mistress Mary Meyer.

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