National News

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Barrier-Breaking Lawyer, Dies at 104

Posted May 21, 2018 6:09 p.m. EDT

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 U.S. District Court in Washington: 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 summer 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, 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, Roundtree, who died 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,” Corcoran said. “We have your verdict, which states that you find the defendant, Ray Crump Jr., not guilty."

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 $1 — 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 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

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, 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, Alabama.

(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 Roundtree.)

As a cleric, 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, 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, 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,” 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, North Carolina, 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 AME 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, 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, 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, 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, South Carolina. In 1941, she made her way to Washington and Bethune’s office at the National Council of Negro Women.

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. 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, Roundtree recalled. But in the Army as a whole, Jim Crow was alive and well: The U.S. military would be desegregated only in 1948, by executive order of President Harry S. Truman.

On the base, 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, 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 GI 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.

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, Roundtree recalled in a 1994 interview, with “two dozen eggs, a bag of greens and leftover poundcake.” 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 Co.

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

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

Keys’ lawsuit sought to challenge the country’s long-standing “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 U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the Keys suit on jurisdictional grounds. But because Keys’ journey had involved the crossing of state lines, Roundtree and 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, Kansas, handed down that year, had outlawed segregation in public schools. Roundtree and 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 U.S. 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,” 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, Robertson died of a heart attack, at 45, leaving 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 AME Church approved the full ordination of women in 1960, Roundtree entered Howard’s divinity school. Ordained the next year, she took a pulpit at Allen Chapel AME 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.

‘They Say You Killed a Lady’

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

A court-appointed psychiatrist deemed Crump fit to stand trial. But on meeting him, 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 Roundtree’s defensive masterstrokes came as she combed police reports about the crime. Two witness had spoken of seeing a black man standing over Meyer’s body. That man, they said, was about 5-foot-8, 185 pounds.

Crump was 5-foot-3, 130 pounds.

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

Roundtree’s second masterstroke came in the choice of her single exhibit. She offered three character witnesses on Crump’s behalf, but knowing that 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. 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, all the 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 AME Church, for which she was a special consultant for legal affairs.

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

Her death, in Charlotte, where she had lived for the past two decades, was confirmed by McCabe, her co-author. Among Roundtree’s honors is the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the American Bar Association, presented in 2000.

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

That did not keep her from going to the polls in November 2008, 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.