Ms. JD

Summer Reading: Justice Older than the Law By Katie McCabe and Dovey Johnson Roundtree

Editor's Note: This review was written by Deborah Froling for NAWL's Women Lawyers Journal.  Deborah Froling is a partner with Arent Fox LLP in Washington, D.C.  She has been a member of the Executive Board of NAWL for the past four years and currently serves as its Treasurer-Elect and editor of the Women Lawyers Journal.

Before reading “Justice Older than the Law,” I had never heard of Dovey Johnson
Roundtree. I find that astonishing since I’m a news junkie, have spent close to 25 years in the Washington, D.C. area and 23 of those years steeped in the D.C. legal profession. However, the life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree – from Charlotte, North Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia to Washington, D.C. -- from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to Howard University Law School to ordained minister in the A.M.E. church – and the people with whom she associated – Mary McLeod Bethune, James Nabrit and Joyce Hens Green, among many others – is a story about a woman who had enough courage for five or six lifetimes. The book is an awe-inspiring tale – it’s part story of a woman growing up in the Jim Crow south, part story of a woman who serves her country even though her country does not really want her to, it’s part story of a woman who joined and changed the legal profession in Washington, D.C. and it’s part story of a woman who became an ordained minister in a church that resisted her full participation. It’s all of those things and none of those things. The story is about universal truths that apply to all of us -- these truths happen to come in the life’s journey of one spectacularly courageous woman named Dovey Johnson Roundtree.

I was fortunate enough to not only to be able to read and review the book but also meet with co-author Katie McCabe and interview her for this article. The process of writing the book took more than ten years and I must say it was time well spent. The book was an enthralling read from beginning to end. McCabe and Dovey are as unlikely a pair as you will ever see but their collaboration results in a book that is much more than just a story of Dovey’s life and a history of the civil rights movement. It is a universal story about one woman’s journey through life during a very tumultuous time in our country.

Dovey is introduced to us first as a child at the feet of her grandmother, Rachel. Those feet were broken, gnarled and misshapen – the result of a beating by a white slave master. Her grandmother was Dovey’s first beacon. After Dovey’s father died in the flu epidemic of 1919, Dovey, her mother and sisters went to live with her grandmother and grandfather, a minister. It was life with her grandmother that shaped Dovey’s life and it was with her grandmother that Dovey first experienced racism in the Jim Crow south. It was from this same woman that Dovey was armed against the exclusion she faced most of her life.

Dovey’s story is the story of a lifetime of courage, a story about how one person
can change the world and the story of a woman who had great mentors and took full
advantage of all the opportunities those mentors guided her towards. From Dovey’s
first teacher, her grandmother, to Edythe Wimbish, her eighth-grade teacher in Charlotte who first set her sights on Spelman College, to Mary Mae Neptune, a white professor of English literature at Spelman who took special interest in Dovey, to Mary McLeod Bethune, a friend of Grandma Rachel’s and President of the National Council on Negro Women in DC and James Nabrit, her professor at Howard Law School, Dovey was guided and nurtured and challenged throughout her life. That she accomplished so much is not a surprise – but how she did it and what she did is enough for five people, not a diminutive black woman raised in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1920s and 1930s.

As a black woman raised in the south, Dovey faced enormous challenges at every turn. Dovey could have quit fighting at any time but she didn’t. When Dovey, at Edythe Wimbish’s and her mother’s urging, set her mind to attending Spelman, she could have been thwarted by the lack of money and the real danger of being in Atlanta at the time, but she wasn’t. When she encountered problems at Spelman, she could have dropped out, returned to North Carolina and found work near home. Instead, through the gift of Mary Mae Neptune, she was able to stay at Spelman and graduate. Dovey says about Mary Mae, “[t]here is always someone … who would be the miracle maker in your life, if you but believe. Miss Neptune was that person for me.” Upon graduation, Dovey went to teach in Chester, South Carolina to earn money to help out her family, and while she could have been content to do that for the remainder of her days, she was not. Over time, Dovey’s restlessness grew and, in 1941, she headed to Washington, and called on Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, that friend of her grandmother. When Dr. Bethune decided that Dovey should be in the first class of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), Dovey could have decided not to answer that call. Instead, Dovey decided to join the WAAC and subject herself to the injustices foisted upon her in the military. When the blossoming integration was threatened immediately prior to Dovey and the others in the first WAAC class taking their re-enlistment oath, Dovey, alone, stood prepared to resign her commission rather than accept a segregated unit. Dovey said “the idea of America
was worth fighting for, however ugly its present reality. Now, finally, I had come to that myself.”

After the war ended, rather than head home to North Carolina or resume her teaching career, Dovey began work as a recruiter for A. Philip Randolph’s Fair Employment Practices Committee. In telling her mother and grandmother about her assignment in California, Dovey said “I felt myself torn in the way that was to define my life as a woman for the next sixty years.”

It was during her time working for the Fair Employment Practices Committee that
Dovey, with the help of Pauli Murray, a young lawyer who later joined forces with Betty Friedan and founded the National Organization of Women, realized the answer was in the law – “it was the law, misapplied, twisted, disingenuously interpreted that had generated the monstrosity known as separate but equal.” Dovey’s decision to go to law school was a departure from her long-held plans to go to medical school and Bill Roundtree, her love at Spelman who re-appeared in Dovey’s life after the war ended, was solidly behind her – even talking about studying law together. Dovey struggled with her decision to marry Bill and have children against her desire to pursue a career in law – concerned that she couldn’t do both – a struggle that continues to this day for many. Pauli Murray told her Dovey that, of course she could, and so Bill and Dovey were married on Christmas Eve in Chicago and then left for Portland, Oregon, where Dovey continued her FEPC work. Unfortunately, Dovey notes that “Bill in his truest heart wanted a woman quite different from the one I’d become [and] … somewhere in the winter months in Portland, I began to sense that, much as we cared for each other, we were moving on different tracks altogether.” When Dovey and Bill moved back to Washington so that Dovey could enroll in Howard Law School, it became clear that Bill had chosen a different path. So, in 1947, Dovey alone entered Howard University Law School on the GI bill, as one of five women in her class.

When Dovey arrived at Howard, the discrimination was as strong as it was in the
military. This time, however, the discrimination was due more to her gender than her race. At registration, Dovey was asked repeatedly whether it was her brother, husband or father that was registering for school on the GI bill. It was inconceivable to many that Dovey would be enrolling for herself, as a woman and as a military veteran.

Given the title, this is where I thought the book would have started. I expected to read about many of the cases that Dovey tried throughout her long legal career in great detail. While that might have been interesting for a lawyer, this book was not written just for lawyers. This is not solely a book about what cases Dovey won and lost but the story of a journey that began in North Carolina and ended up in Washington, D.C. amongst the most powerful people in the civil rights movement and beyond. However, since being a lawyer is a large part of her journey, there are two cases detailed in the book – Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company and Ray Crump. Sarah Keys was a 22 year old WAC member who had been thrown off a bus by the driver in the middle of the night and left to fend for herself in a little North Carolina town in the middle of nowhere after she refused to give up her seat in the front of the bus to a white marine. After Ms. Keys refused to give up her seat, the bus driver off-loaded all of the passengers from the bus and loaded them onto another bus but when Sarah Keys tried to board, the bus driver slammed the door in her face. When Sarah ran into the station for help, which she didn’t receive, she went up to a police officer at the station and begged for help. Instead, she was accused of disorderly conduct and thrown into jail for the night and promptly the next morning,
was convicted of disorderly conduct by the mayor who praised the local police for their vigilance. The incident, for Dovey, was reminiscent of her own experience in Miami nine years before when she was recruiting for the army and was thrown off a bus. It also brought back memories of a recent incident on a train experienced by her mother and grandmother returning home to North Carolina from D.C. and for whom Dovey was unable to obtain justice. Appearing before the Interstate Commerce Commission, Dovey and her law partner, Julius, set out to desegregate interstate travel while Thurgood Marshall and others were pursuing Brown v. Board of Education and other desegregation cases in the Supreme Court.

Winning the Sarah Keys case cemented Dovey’s reputation in legal circles, but the Ray Crump case was the one that made her the darling of D.C. Ray Crump was accused of the C&O Canal murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer, a woman of power and privilege - she was the sister-in-law of Newsweek’s Washington Bureau Chief, Ben Bradlee. Mary’s ex- husband was a top CIA official and there were rumors that she had had an affair with President John Kennedy. Ray Crump, on the other hand, was a child-man, who was described as puny and slow-witted. Previously, he had been beaten and robbed, causing him to suffer blackouts and headaches. He also drank too much but he worked when he could and provided for his family. His mother begged Dovey to take on this seemingly unwinnable case. According to Dovey, Ray was “incapable” of committing this crime of which he had been accused. Dovey notes that her presence on the case “irritated and threatened many of the white judges and lawyers in the courthouse, male and female alike.” At this time in history, black lawyers were expected to lose these types of trials and therefore, were not sought out even by blacks to defend them in court. The Ray Crump case, thought by all to be a lost cause, was, in Dovey’s mind, one that never should have come to trial. A man’s life was at stake and Dovey was going to use everything she had to make sure he won. Dovey said, “[i]n the eight months during which I had Raymond Crump in my keeping, and the eight days of the trial when I acted as his advocate at the bar of justice, I reached into every part of my mind, drew upon nearly every area of my legal training, tapped every recess of my heart, and looked into my soul for the understanding that neither the law nor my intellect could provide. No case, before or since, consumed me in quite the same way. And no case left me so changed.” It was the beginning of “the kind of success of which many lawyers dream.” Dovey had cases, notoriety and respect. Dovey noted, “I’d gone into the trial with the sense that I was being tested and watched by many who resented my presence in such a high profile case, but I felt, afterwards, that at last I’d won acceptance, and in so doing,
helped to make a way for young attorneys of every color.”

If that were not enough, Dovey decided that she needed to pursue the ministry –
something about the practice of law left her wanting more. Her decision to pursue the ministry, however, needed the approval of the two most important women in her life – her mother and her grandmother. When Dovey told her grandmother she wanted to go into the ministry, her grandma said simply “if you don’t, you will die.” And while it seems simple enough, at the time Dovey started studying for the ministry, the AME church did not allow women to have full ministerial rights. By the time Dovey was ready, however, so was the AME church, having decided to grant women those full ministerial rights. Dovey was a trailblazer in the church, just as she was in everything else she did.

There is so much else in the book that can’t be covered in this brief review but I would commend everyone to read the book in its entirety. It is a fascinating read, for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. It is a moving story, a universal story and it is told exceptionally well.

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