"I have battled in my time for so many kinds of justice, fought for integration in the army, pressed for racial fairness before the Interstate Commerce Commission, argued for the rights of hundreds upon hundreds of men and women in courts of law. But no battle of my half century at the bar has been so urgent as the one for the next generation."
Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Mighty Justice
Dovey Johnson Roundtree
Her Life and Legacy
April 17 --Dovey Mae Johnson is born in Charlotte, NC to James Eliot Johnson and Lela Bryant Johnson.
World War I
D.W. Griffiths’ film Birth of a Nation inspires formation of new and powerful Ku Klux Klan.
Dovey’s father, James Eliot Johnson, dies in the Spanish flu pandemic.
The Great Depression
Dovey works her way through Spelman College, taking a teaching job in Chester, SC upon graduation in 1938.
The United States enters World War II.
Mary McLeod Bethune selects Dovey as one of 40 black women to train as officers in the newly created Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC).
World War II ends. Dovey is discharged from the WAC and marries William A. Roundtree. She is recruited by labor leader A. Philip Randolph for his Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) campaign in California, where she meets legal scholar Pauli Murray, who inspires her to enroll in law school.
Dovey, divorced from William Roundtree, attends Howard Law School on the GI Bill, one of five women in her class.
September -- Army Private Sarah Louise Keys, thrown off a North Carolina bus while traveling in uniform and forced to yield her seat to a white Marine, is referred to Dovey Roundtree by Dovey’s Howard Law professor Frank Reeves on the basis of the common WAC travel experience the two women shared.
November 19 -- Dovey and her partner Julius Winfield Robertson file a complaint against Carolina Coach Company on behalf of Sarah Keys in US District Court for the District of Columbia.
February 20 -- the US District Court dismisses Keys on jurisdictional grounds.
September 1 -- Dovey and Julius file the first Jim Crow bus complaint ever brought before the Interstate Commerce Commission on behalf of Keys.
December 14 -- the NAACP files a companion case against 12 Southern railway lines.
May 17 -- the Supreme Court unanimously strikes down the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ in public education in Brown v. Board of Education.
September 30 -- ICC Commissioner Isador Freidson rules against Keys and the NAACP in its companion train case, saying that Brown v. Board has no bearing on public transportation.
October 19 -- Dovey and Julius file exceptions to Freidson’s ruling.
November 7 -- the ICC rules in favor of the petitioner in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. However, the commission's segregationist chairman refuses to enforce the ruling.
December 1 -- Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, AL.
May 29 -- Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy invokes Keys v. Carolina Coach in a Justice Department petition to the ICC in support of the Freedom Riders. Six years after its initial ruling, the commission enforces Keys.
November -- Dovey makes ecumenical history as one of the first women ordained to the ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She joins the staff at Allen Chapel AME Church in Washington, DC.
That same month, Julius Winfield Robertson dies of a heart attack at age 44.
Dovey becomes the first black member of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia upon nomination by Joyce Hens Green.
In U.S. v. Ray Crump, Dovey wins acquittal for a Black laborer accused of the murder of JFK mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer, securing a reputation as one of Washington’s premiere criminal defense lawyers.
Dovey founds the law firm of Roundtree Knox Hunter and Parker.
In the first of several murder cases to which Dovey is appointed defense counsel by a DC judge, she wins acquittal for John Griffiths in his retrial for his alleged role in the Hanafi Muslim murders.
Dovey retires, moves to Charlotte, and begins work with Washington writer Katie McCabe on her autobiography.
The American Bar Association honors Dovey with its Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award.
Dovey Roundtree’s autobiography, Justice Older than the Law, is released by the University Press of Mississippi and wins the Association of Black Women Historians’ Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award.
The Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia honors Dovey with its Janet B. Reno Torchbearer Award.
A Washington DC affordable housing facility is named The Roundtree Residences in honor of Dovey’s work in the greater Southeast Washington, DC community.
On May 21, Dovey Johnson Roundtree dies in Charlotte at the age of 104.
Dovey Roundtree’s autobiography is reissued as Mighty Justice by Algonquin Books.
June 17 --Spelman College announces the Dovey Johnson Roundtree Presidential Scholarship,
December -- a middle-grade biography of Dovey Roundtree is released by Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan).
February -- a picture book based on Dovey Roundtree’s childhood, We Wait for the Sun, is released by Roaring Book Press (Macmillan).
We Wait for the Sun wins the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award.
Washington, D.C., July 29, 1965. In the packed fourth-floor courtroom of the US District Court, all eyes were riveted on a single woman: a Black attorney dressed in a pink and white suit, arguing in soft Carolina accents and the ringing tones of a minister for the life of her client, Raymond Crump. He stood accused of the murder of a wealthy young white woman, Georgetown painter and ex-CIA wife Mary Pinchot Meyer. In time, Washington would learn of Meyer’s romance with the late President Kennedy and the CIA’s confiscation of her diary the night of her death. In the moment, though, it was the sheer horror of her killing that captivated the city and fueled calls for the speedy conviction of the Black laborer at the defense table.
In the District Courthouse on that sweltering July afternoon, all was silence. No one, not the press corps nor the newly appointed New England judge nor the phalanx of white lawyers from the US Attorney’s office had counted on this petite African American woman who for a fee of one dollar had taken on the defense of a man courthouse oddsmakers pegged for the chair. She’d managed to puncture the US Attorney’s case with a secret weapon the prosecutorial team had overlooked: a police document recording the chief witness’s description of the man he’d seen standing over Meyer’s body. At five feet three inches and 130 pounds, Crump was five inches too short and 50 pounds too light to have been that man. Now, on the final day of trial, she walked the spellbound jury through the holes in the prosecution’s case, quoted Shakespeare on the matter of reputation, and invoked the sacredness of a man’s good name. The next morning, on Friday, July 30, the jury acquitted Ray Crump, Jr. of the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer.
The lawyer’s name was Dovey Johnson Roundtree. When she won acquittal for Ray Crump six decades ago, she won more than freedom for a single client. In one stroke, she derailed the government’s efforts to seal off investigation of Mary Meyer’s murder, paved the way for the lawyers of color who would follow her, and cracked the wall of prejudice that had shut Blacks out of the justice system in Washington, D.C. since the Civil War.
Why haven’t you heard of her?
Because history is written by white men, and Dovey Johnson Roundtree was neither.
Out of Darkness toward Justice
Dovey Mary Magdalene Johnson was born in the Jim Crow South in 1914 and came of age as a new incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was rising up with deadly force. All her life, Dovey would remember huddling with her mother and sisters beneath the kitchen table as howling Klansmen on horseback thundered through the Black section of Charlotte, NC.
But alongside the racial violence that shadowed her childhood stood the bold figure of her maternal grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham, an AME Zion minister’s wife who taught her grandchildren that Jim Crow was a lie. In the church parsonage where she’d gathered Dovey and her family after their father’s death in the 1919 influenza epidemic, Grandma Rachel mounted what Dovey later called “a one- woman assault on despair.”
Grandma Rachel filled Dovey and her three sisters with rich food, a rocklike faith, and the certainty of a better world for Black people. And Grandma Rachel did more than preach. She placed her granddaughters within the orbit of the renowned activist Mary McLeod Bethune, her friend and ally in the colored women’s club movement and a guest in the family’s home. It was Bethune who inspired Dovey to apply to the elite Spelman College and chose her for a historic spot in the first class of Black women to train as officers in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
The World War II military transformed the 28-year-old Dovey into a freedom fighter. Dispatched to perilous Deep South recruiting duty after she’d challenged the Army’s “Colored” mess hall signs at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, she thwarted the move meant to marginalize her by invoking the bold vision she’d absorbed from Bethune to aggressively recruit other African American women to the service. Risking court martial, Dovey challenged her base commandant’s resegregation of a mixed-race platoon, invoking FDR’s Four Freedoms and unpinning her captain's bars in a public
Genesis of a Freedom Fighter
confrontation that reduced her comrades and superiors to silence. When the commandant rescinded his order, Dovey later said, she discovered the lawyer in herself.
It required only the eloquence of groundbreaking Constitutional lawyer Pauli Murray, whose path Dovey crossed on a postwar assignment with labor reformer A. Philip Randolph, to pitch her into the civil rights revolution exploding at Howard University Law School in the fall of 1947. From her seat in Howard’s moot courtroom, Dovey watched NAACP Legal Defense Fund giants Thurgood Marshall, George E.C. Hayes and James Madison Nabrit, Jr. rehearse for their Supreme Court appearances in the graduate school cases leading up to Brown v. Board of Education.
She went on to make her own history. In November 1955, six months after Brown and one month before Rosa Parks ignited the bus boycott led by the Rev. Martin Luther, King, Jr., Dovey and her partner Julius Winfield Robertson wrested from the notoriously segregationist Interstate Commerce Commission the ruling that enabled Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to enforce bus desegregation across state lines in the 1961 Freedom Riders’ campaign. Invoked by the Justice Department at the height of mob violence in the South, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company stands as a landmark case, accomplishing in interstate travel what Brown had done in public education.
A Life of Firsts
In the six years between the Keys ruling and its implementation in 1961, Dovey Roundtree walked a path far removed from the protests across the South. Following the sudden death of Julius Robertson, who had championed her efforts to make her mark as a woman attorney, she grappled with deep misgivings about her ability to survive alone. But in an abandoned funeral home she bought and renovated at 1822 11th Street, NW, a few doors down from the office she’d shared with Robertson, she hung out her shingle and pushed forward, building a reputation as a one-person legal aid society.
Taking on the Interstate Commerce Commission
A Woman Alone
Once again, she made history. Challenging the all-male bastion of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she led the vanguard of women ordained to the Church’s ministry in November, 1961. The following year she weathered the firestorm of controversy surrounding her nomination as the first Black member of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia.
Rachel Bryant Graham, circa 1925
Captain Dovey Johnson and Mary McLeod Bethune, circa 1944
Captain Dovey Johnson recruiting WACs in Akron, Ohio.
Photo courtesy of Opie Evans Estate.
Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Howard Law graduation, 1950
Rev. Dovey Roundtree with the trustees of Allen Chapel, circa 1961
Dovey Johnson, 1914
Dovey Roundtree speaking about the Keys case, Spelman College, 1995. Video courtesy of Spelman College.
Even among women, she had to fight for her place, and when in the fall of 1964 she took on the case of Ray Crump, Dovey felt her aloneness more acutely than at any other point in her life. During her visits to the murder scene on the banks of the C & O Canal, she was haunted by the sense that she was being watched. At the time, she knew nothing of the CIA’s surveillance of Mary Meyer, an outspoken critic of the Agency and the Warren
Commission’s findings on the Kennedy assassination. She was also unaware that hours before the DC police identified Meyer’s body, the CIA knew of her murder. However, the anonymous midnight phone calls Dovey received after each of her Canal visits persuaded her that there were powerful people tracking her movements and counting on her failure.
Dovey Roundtree, U.S. District Court for D.C., 1985
But she did not fail. And in the years following her victory in U.S. v. Ray Crump, Dovey Roundtree rose to become one of the city’s most sought after criminal defense attorneys. She was appointed by judges to a series of the District’s toughest murder cases, including the notorious 1977 Hanafi Muslim case, in which she won acquittal for defendant John Griffin in his retrial for participation in the crime. As the founding partner of the law firm of Roundtree Knox Hunter and Parker, she commanded the respect of allies and adversaries alike. Merging her ministry at Allen Chapel AME Church with her law practice, Dovey Roundtree began moving away from criminal defense work in the 1980’s to family law, working for the welfare of children and families to fight what she called “the demon of violence.” Even after her move to Charlotte, NC following her 1996 retirement from legal practice, she continued to speak out in every forum available to her about the need to shape the next generation.
Awards and Honors
The woman who’d had to fight for a place at the bar in the Nation’s Capital during the 1950’s and ‘60’s became the inspiration for actress Cicely Tyson's depiction of a maverick civil rights lawyer in the television series "Sweet Justice" and the recipient of the American Bar Association's 2000 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. In 2011 she received the Janet B. Reno Torchbearer Award from the Women's Bar Association of
the District of Columbia, the organization she’d integrated in 1962. In March 2013 an affordable senior living facility in the Southeast Washington DC community where she ministered was named "The Roundtree Residences" in her honor.
Dovey Roundtree with co-author Katie McCabe, at ABA awards, 2000
The Dovey Roundtree Legacy
Dovey Roundtree died on May 21, 2018 in Charlotte, NC at the age of 104, having preserved the story of her life in a memoir she co-authored with National Magazine Award winner Katie McCabe. Their book, Mighty Justice, was a January 2020 Oprah Best Book Pick and the winner of the Association of Black Women Historians’ Letitia Woods Brown Award. The memoir formed the basis for two children’s books, a 2021 middle-grade biography, also entitled Mighty Justice, and a 2022 Coretta Scott King Honor Award-winning picture book, We Wait for the Sun.
Dovey Roundtree’s legacy to the next generation continues through the Dovey Johnson Roundtree Educational Trust, which funds scholarships to Spelman College and Howard Law School students. In June 2020, Spelman College created its own scholarship fund in her name with a $40 million donation from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillin, who presented the gift amid nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Spelman president Mary Schmidt Campbell called the donation “a historic gift in response to a historic moment.”