[Marxism] Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Barrier-Breaking Lawyer, Dies at 104

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 22 09:49:01 MDT 2018


(A must read)

NY Times, May 22, 2018
Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Barrier-Breaking Lawyer, Dies at 104
By Margalit Fox

The jurors were looking at her when they filed into court. That, Dovey 
Johnson Roundtree knew, could have immense significance for her client, 
a feebleminded day laborer accused of one of the most sensational 
murders of the mid-20th century.

Little had augured well for that client, Raymond Crump Jr., during his 
eight-day trial in United States District Court in Washington: Mr. 
Crump, who had been found near the crime scene, was black and poor. The 
victim was white, glamorous and supremely well connected. The country, 
in the summer of 1965, seethed with racial tension amid the surging 
civil rights movement.

Federal prosecutors had amassed a welter of circumstantial evidence — 
including 27 witnesses and more than 50 exhibits — to argue that on Oct. 
12, 1964, Mr. Crump had carried out the execution-style shooting of Mary 
Pinchot Meyer, a Washington socialite said to have been a former lover 
of President John F. Kennedy.

By contrast, Ms. Roundtree, who died on Monday at 104, had chosen to 
present just three witnesses and a single exhibit to the jury, which 
comprised men and women, blacks and whites. Her closing argument was 
only 20 minutes long.

Now, on July 30, 1965, the jury, having deliberated, was back. The court 
clerk handed the verdict slip to the judge, Howard F. Corcoran. For most 
observers, inside the courtroom and out, conviction — and an 
accompanying death sentence — was a foregone conclusion.

“Members of the jury,” Judge Corcoran said. “We have your verdict, which 
states that you find the defendant, Ray Crump Jr., not guilty.”

Ms. Roundtree’s defense, which hinged partly on two forensic 
masterstrokes, made her reputation as a litigator of acuity, concision 
and steel who could win even the most hopeless trials. And this in a 
case for which she had received a fee of one dollar — and in a 
courthouse where she was not allowed to use the law library, cafeteria 
or restroom.

“As a woman, and as a woman of color in an age when black lawyers had to 
leave the courthouse to use the bathrooms, she dared to practice before 
the bar of justice and was unflinching,” Katie McCabe, the co-author of 
Ms. Roundtree’s memoir, “Justice Older Than the Law,” said in an 
interview for this obituary in 2016. “She was a one-woman Legal Aid 
Society before people used that term.”

Officer, Lawyer, Minister

Ms. Roundtree’s victory in the Crump case was not her first noteworthy 
accomplishment, and it was by no means her last. Born to a family of 
slender means in the Jim Crow South, Ms. Roundtree — or the Rev. Dovey 
Johnson Roundtree, as she was long formally known — was instrumental in 
winning a spate of advances for blacks and women in midcentury America, 
blazing trails in the military, the legal profession and the ministry.

As an inaugural member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the 
Women’s Army Corps), she became, in 1942, one of the first women of any 
race to be commissioned an Army officer. Attaining the rank of captain, 
she personally recruited scores of African-American women for wartime 
Army service.

As a Washington lawyer, she helped secure a landmark ban on racial 
segregation in interstate bus travel in a case that originated in 1952 — 
three years before Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat in Montgomery, Ala.

(In the mid-1990s, after Cicely Tyson was cast as Carrie Grace Battle, 
the crusading civil-rights lawyer at the center of the NBC series “Sweet 
Justice,” she looked for a real-life role model on whom to base her 
character. She chose Ms. Roundtree.)

As a cleric, Ms. Roundtree was one of the first women to be ordained a 
minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 2009, in a statement honoring the publication of “Justice Older Than 
the Law,” the first lady, Michelle Obama, said, “As an Army veteran, 
lawyer and minister, Ms. Roundtree set a new path for the many women who 
have followed her and proved once again that the vision and perseverance 
of a single individual can help to turn the tides of history.”

Yet for all her perseverance, and all her prowess, Ms. Roundtree 
remained, by temperament, choice and political circumstance, 
comparatively unknown.

“One has to start with the fact — and I think it’s an acknowledged fact 
— that the civil rights movement was notoriously sexist,” Ms. McCabe 
said in 2016. “There were many men who did not appreciate being ground 
up into hamburger meat by Dovey Roundtree. There are many, many white 
lawyers — male — in Washington who were humiliated by having been beaten 
by a black woman. And I think that played out in a number of ways. And 
one of those ways has been a diminution in the recognition that I think 
her accomplishments merit.”

A Jim Crow Heritage

The second of four daughters of James Eliot Johnson, a printer, and Lela 
(Bryant) Johnson, a domestic, Dovey Mae Johnson was born in Charlotte, 
N.C., on April 17, 1914. Her father died in the influenza epidemic of 
1919, and Dovey, her mother and sisters were taken in by her maternal 
grandparents, the Rev. Clyde L. Graham, a minister in the A.M.E. Zion 
Church, and Rachel Bryant Graham.

Reared in her grandfather’s shotgun-shack parsonage in one of 
Charlotte’s black districts, Dovey was profoundly influenced by her 
grandmother, who despite having only a third-grade education became a 
revered member of the community.

Born not long after the Civil War ended, Rachel Graham had weathered the 
death of her first husband at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. She lived 
with feet so badly crippled that she was in constant pain: When she was 
a teenager, she had thwarted a white man’s attempts to rape her by 
running. Enraged, he stomped her feet, shattering them, to ensure she 
would never run again.

Long afterward, Ms. Roundtree recalled huddling beneath her 
grandmother’s kitchen table with her mother and sisters as Klansmen 
raged through their community on horseback. Rachel Graham stood guard on 
the front porch, wielding her household broom as the hooded riders 
thundered by. It was an index of her grandmother’s formidable mien, Ms. 
Roundtree said, that it did not occur to her until years later how 
slender an armament a broom really was.

Encouraged by a friend of her grandmother’s, the distinguished black 
educator Mary McLeod Bethune, young Dovey Johnson set her sights on 
becoming a doctor. She enrolled at Spelman College, the Atlanta women’s 
college then known as the black Vassar.

There, Ms. Roundtree later wrote, “I was in my own way an outsider — a 
poor working student in a sea of black privilege.” She held three 
simultaneous jobs, including domestic work for a white family, in order 
to remain in school. She graduated in 1938 with a double major in 
English and biology.

With no money for medical school, she spent the next three years 
teaching seventh and eighth grade in Chester, S.C. In 1941, she made her 
way to Washington and Dr. Bethune’s office at the National Council of 
Negro Women.

Dr. Bethune and her close friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, 
were just then pressing for the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary 
Corps, which would admit a cohort of women for training as Army 
officers. Dr. Bethune helped ensure that 40 of the 440 women in that 
cohort would be black.

The corps was established in May 1942 and Dovey Johnson joined up, 
reporting for training at Fort Des Moines in Iowa.

United by the war effort, the black and white women on the base forged 
an easy camaraderie, Ms. Roundtree recalled. But in the Army as a whole, 
Jim Crow was alive and well: The United States military would be 
desegregated only in 1948, by executive order of President Harry S. Truman.

On the base, Ms. Roundtree risked court-martial by confronting white 
commanding officers about segregationist practices, including “colored 
only” tables in the mess hall. In that effort she was successful, and 
the signs came down.

Life outside the base was harder still. In 1943, on a recruiting trip 
through the South, Ms. Roundtree, in uniform, was ordered to relinquish 
her seat on a Miami bus to a white Marine. Threatened with arrest, she 
was forced to disembark.

Such episodes, she later said, marked the start of her interest in the 
law as a tool of social justice.

In 1947, she entered Howard University’s law school on the G.I. Bill, 
one of only five women in her class. The law quickly became a consuming 
passion, so much so that it cost her her marriage to her college 
sweetheart, William A. Roundtree, whom she had wed in 1946. The couple 
separated after eight months and divorced not long afterward.

Ms. Roundtree graduated from law school in 1950. Admitted to the 
District of Columbia bar the next year, she went into practice with a 
classmate, Julius Winfield Robertson. In 1962, despite a storm of 
protest from its members, she became the first African-American admitted 
to the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia.

There was little remunerative work for Robertson & Roundtree at first. 
Committed to helping disenfranchised clients, the partners were often 
paid, Ms. Roundtree recalled in a 1994 interview, with “two dozen eggs, 
a bag of greens and leftover poundcake.” Mr. Robertson moonlighted on 
the night shift at the post office.

A Bus Ride to History

Then, in 1952, they took on a case that would quietly become a landmark: 
Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company.

Sarah Louise Keys was a young black private in the Women’s Army Corps. 
Earlier that year, in uniform, she had traveled by bus from Fort Dix, in 
New Jersey, to her home in North Carolina.

In Roanoke Rapids, N.C., a new driver ordered her to give up her seat to 
a white Marine, just as Ms. Roundtree had been told to do years before. 
Ms. Keys demurred and was arrested and jailed for disorderly conduct.

Ms. Keys’s lawsuit sought to challenge the country’s longstanding 
“separate but equal” doctrine. Confirmed by the Supreme Court in Plessy 
v. Ferguson — a seminal decision of 1896 that has long been considered 
one of the court’s least felicitous — the doctrine enfranchised the 
separation of the races in public facilities.

In early 1953, the United States District Court for the District of 
Columbia dismissed the Keys suit on jurisdictional grounds. But because 
Ms. Keys’s journey had involved the crossing of state lines, Ms. 
Roundtree and Mr. Robertson realized that they might profitably plead 
the case before the Interstate Commerce Commission. A federal agency, 
the commission was charged with regulating railroads, buses and the like.

In 1954, the commission rejected their case. But by then, the Supreme 
Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, handed down 
that year, had outlawed segregation in public schools. Ms. Roundtree and 
Mr. Robertson approached the commission again, arguing that the Brown 
decision should apply equally to transportation.

On Nov. 7, 1955, the commission issued its decision, banning segregation 
on interstate bus travel. Though the ruling would not be enforced for 
six years — in 1961, amid the violence against Freedom Riders in the 
South, the United States attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, pressured 
the commission to do so — it was a civil rights watershed.

“The Negro traveler will now have the freedom to ride (on train or bus) 
and the freedom to wait (in waiting rooms and at stations) as a human 
being,” the columnist Max Lerner wrote in The New York Post after the 
ruling. “I light a candle in my heart with the knowledge that white and 
black alike, we can now ride together across the state lines of 48 states.”

In 1961, Mr. Robertson died of a heart attack, at 45, leaving Ms. 
Roundtree to run the practice. By this time she had grown disheartened 
with the law’s ability to improve the lives of the country’s most 
marginalized people. Her thoughts had turned increasingly toward 
providing spiritual succor, and she dreamed of entering the ministry.

After the A.M.E. Church approved the full ordination of women in 1960, 
Ms. Roundtree entered Howard’s divinity school. Ordained the next year, 
she took a pulpit at Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church in Anacostia, a largely 
black, predominantly low-income neighborhood in southeast Washington, 
while continuing to practice law.

She would bring both her lawyerly and her ministerial capacities to bear 
on the case of Raymond Crump.

A Masterly Defense

A slight, intellectually fragile man of 24, Mr. Crump had been 
apprehended near the Washington canal towpath where Ms. Meyer, 43, had 
been shot at point-blank range as she took her daily walk.

A court-appointed psychiatrist deemed Mr. Crump fit to stand trial. But 
on meeting him, Ms. Roundtree said, she realized that he could never 
have carried out so well-planned and methodical a crime.

“Lawyer,” he beseeched her, “what is it they say I done?”

“They say you killed a lady, Mr. Crump,” she replied, very gently.

The first of Ms. Roundtree’s defensive masterstrokes came as she combed 
police reports about the crime. Two witnesses had spoken of seeing a 
black man standing over Ms. Meyer’s body. That man, they said, was about 
5-foot-8, 185 pounds.

Mr. Crump was 5-foot-3, 130 pounds.

“You hold in your hands the life of a man,” Ms. Roundtree told the jury 
in her closing remarks. “A little man, if you please.”

Ms. Roundtree’s second masterstroke came in the choice of her single 
exhibit. She offered three character witnesses on Mr. Crump’s behalf, 
but knowing that Mr. Crump could not weather a cross-examination, did 
not put him on the stand.

And thus her sole exhibit — Exhibit A, she told the jurors — was Raymond 
Crump himself. Indicating him, she admonished them, “I leave this little 
man in your hands.”

The jury deliberated for 11 hours before voting to acquit. No one else 
has ever been charged with the crime.

Ms. Roundtree, who practiced law into her 80s, was a founding partner, 
in 1970, of Roundtree, Knox, Hunter & Parker, a Washington firm that 
endures to this day. In later years she specialized in domestic and 
juvenile cases, while continuing her ministerial work, before retiring 
to Charlotte.

Her other clients included the National Council of Negro Women, for 
which she served as general counsel, and the national A.M.E. Church, for 
which she was a special legal consultant.

Ms. Roundtree’s survivors include her cousin and law partner, Jerry L. 
Hunter; her goddaughter, Charlene Pritchett-Stevenson, whom she 
considered a daughter; and Ms. Pritchett-Stevenson’s son, James Andrew 
Pritchett.

Her death, in Charlotte, where she had lived for the past two decades, 
was confirmed by Ms. McCabe.

Among Ms. Roundtree’s honors is the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of 
Achievement Award from the American Bar Association, presented in 2000.

In her 90s, Ms. Roundtree lost her sight to diabetes, from which she had 
suffered for many years.

That did not keep her, in November 2008, from going to the polls in 
Charlotte, the city where the Klan had rampaged past her home. There, 
with the help of a sighted friend, she cast her ballot for Barack Obama.



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