A Cause and a Friendship

Book Details Life of Activist

Posted June 22, 2009 at 3:23pm

It was a phrase in a Washington Post article — “There is always somebody who would be the miracle maker in your life, if you but believe— — that caught the eye of writer Katie McCabe in 1995.

Those words, spoken by Dovey Roundtree, led to 10 years of collaboration and a new biography, “Justice Older Than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree,— about Roundtree’s life as a civil rights lawyer, minister and Army veteran.

“Dovey is a legend in the legal community,— McCabe said.

With a degree from the Howard University School of Law, Roundtree has won landmark cases such as United States v. Crump in 1965, in which she defended an African-American man, Ray Crump, who was accused of the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer, the alleged mistress of John F. Kennedy.

Roundtree, 95, was born April 17, 1914, in Charlotte, N.C., and had started making notes for her autobiography when McCabe approached her. Initially, the two women had to come to an understanding, McCabe said, since they were brought up just miles apart but during different times and conditions. Roundtree had a humble upbringing but did not lack support from her family. Her grandmother Rachel remained her role model.

Roundtree was a talented student, driven by ambition and a sense of justice, as McCabe shows in the initial passages of the book. Roundtree also received some help along the way, thanks to her teacher at Spelman College, Mae Neptune. She was Roundtree’s first “miracle maker,— loaning the student her own savings to enable Roundtree to continue her studies. Roundtree felt forever indebted to Neptune, McCabe said.

Civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune became another “miracle maker,— choosing Roundtree for the newly created Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II, McCabe said. Before that, Roundtree worked for Bethune and was the “sole witness— when she and her close collaborator, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, planned ways to bring African-American women into the Army, McCabe said.

When Roundtree asked Bethune how she could repay her, Bethune answered, “Pass it on. You’re not doing this for you, you’re doing this for the people coming after you,— McCabe said. Roundtree’s spiritual, legal and military accomplishments raised McCabe’s interest, she said. Roundtree “is a warrior, but has the heart of a peacemaker.—

After serving in the Army, Roundtree began her law education, once again fighting for her rights as an African-American and a woman. During the same time she married her college sweetheart, Bill, but after a short time the couple separated. Roundtree has stated that the divorce was her life’s greatest disappointment.

Entering a life in the law, Roundtree walked in the footsteps of those such as Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice. She witnessed him argue Brown v. Board of Education, and later Roundtree would fight important cases of her own.

One strength in the biography, McCabe said, is how it offers new stories, such as moments behind the scenes with Bethune and Roosevelt. In addition, the book also offers new perspectives on well-known landmarks in the civil rights movement. “Law is so personal to her,— McCabe said. “Dovey could make law comprehensible to everyone.—

Roundtree opened a practice with a partner, Julius Winfield Robertson, and together they argued the case of Sarah Keys, who, like Rosa Parks, was an African-American woman who had refused to give up her bus seat. Although it was a very important case, it did not receive much attention at the time, McCabe said. “Instead of fighting on the mountain top, she preferred to practice law in her little office.— In fact, McCabe concluded, “Strong African-American women have had no place in American history.—

In the 1960s, Washington was “segregated beyond belief,— McCabe said. “So much guts it took to walk into those courtrooms— where Dovey and her colleagues where not allowed to use the same restrooms as their opponents, McCabe said. “[Many people] deeply resented [them]. Dovey, to me, is fearless.—

When Robertson died, Roundtree felt alone without him fighting by her side, the book reveals. Still, she kept going, McCabe said. “I think Dovey saw this problem right here in Washington — a bleeding, open wound. That wound was the black community. She became the voice for that society. She became a one-woman legal aid society.—

About half a century later, McCabe said she profoundly disagrees with people saying they have heard all the stories from the civil rights movement. She still views race as the “topic of our country.— Still, McCabe said she was jolted by the recent election of an African-American president and how important that was, especially for Roundtree. “That was the fulfillment of what she worked for,— McCabe said.

McCabe said her interest in African-American history predates her meeting of Roundtree. McCabe has worked as a freelance journalist for Washingtonian magazine for 22 years, and she said that writing the story of African-American cardiac surgery pioneer Vivien Thomas a couple of years back was life changing. Her story also became the basis for a movie, “Something the Lord Made.—

A Washington, D.C., native, McCabe said she always felt inspired by “unsung heroes,— like her parents. Her father witnessed “horrible racial persecution— growing up in Oklahoma, and McCabe said she was brought up not to regard color.

One of the reasons the book took 10 years to write was the difficulty of finding the right voice, McCabe said. She decided to write it in the first-person voice of Roundtree, adding, “The voice had to be authentic.—

“It took everything I had to keep up with her pace,’— McCabe said about working with Roundtree, who is almost twice McCabe’s age. Initially, they met 20 hours a week in Roundtree’s D.C. house, which was constantly filled with people seeking her advice and attention. Another challenge was that Roundtree, in the midst of the writing process, retired and moved back to Charlotte.

Finishing the work over the phone and making occasional visits to Charlotte, McCabe then faced the challenge of finding a publisher. “Dovey Roundtree is not a household name,— McCabe explained. But because of Roundtree’s legacy, McCabe said, she worked hard to see it through.

Family is an important feature throughout the pages of the book, shown, for instance, when Roundtree moved to Charlotte to care for her sisters. “She was always mothering. Many clients she regarded as children,— McCabe said.

“Justice Older Than the Law— is well-written, sometimes in close detail and other times skimming over some of Roundtree’s years. But overall, it shows the inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking story of Roundtree, who strived to accomplish something — for her family, for the African-American community and for women.

Roundtree is now completely blind and recently celebrated her 95th birthday by listening to the words from the newly finished last chapters of the book — read out loud by McCabe in front of her friends and family.