Some life stories are too important to be relegated to dusty history books. They must be remembered, honored, shared. Dovey Johnson Roundtree lived that large and remarkable a life. “Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights” is a reprint of her 2009 memoir, “Justice Older than the Law,” and published nearly 18 months after her death at age 104.
It chronicles her Charlotte, North Carolina, childhood with careful attention devoted to her family, particularly her grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham, the family’s matriarch whose feet as a young girl were severely disfigured by a white man and painful her entire life. “I saw my grandma Rachel fight everything with that same fierceness — poverty, sickness, injustice, and even despair. Like a mighty stream, her courage flowed through my childhood, shaping me as rushing water shapes the pebbles in its path.”
And shape her, her grandmother did. As an Army officer, then a lawyer and a minister, Roundtree was a lifelong voice for the poor and the marginalized.
Born in 1914, Roundtree chronicles a life filled with herculean challenges, including the racism and rancor of her living situation — as a maid for a wealthy white family — while attending Spelman College in Atlanta during the mid-1930s.
Many of her achievements are historically relevant: She was among the first black, female U.S. Army officers in the early 1940s, wittingly joining the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to racially integrate it at the behest of educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. She was among a handful of women who studied law at Howard University School of Law in 1947, and during her ensuing law practice, in which she continued to battle racism and sexism, she repeatedly challenged Jim Crow laws, which condoned segregation.
Very satisfying is getting to know towering civil and women’s rights figures, such as Bethune and Thurgood Marshall, the latter well before he became the first African-American justice to join the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. There are many more, albeit lesser known, titans of civil rights that Roundtree makes familiar, particularly her Howard law professor, James Madison Nabrit Jr.
It’s like pulling up a seat to listen in as Roundtree details the long, slow and painful path to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka” in 1954 that took on segregation in public education. Marshall was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
“We students knew what history recorded but dimly, that James Nabrit’s was the uncompromising voice that pushed Thurgood Marshall toward a full-blown assault on ‘Plessy v. Ferguson,’” she wrote. “Plessy” was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision that legalized the segregation of public facilities.
Roundtree and her Washington, D.C., law partner, Julius Winfield Robertson, challenged Jim Crow laws on bus travel across state lines in “Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company” based in part on the arguments laid down in “Brown.” She brings the reader into her confidences, sharing much of the team’s strategy along the way. It includes the highs and lows of winning interstate bus travel desegregation in 1955 only to see that ruling lie unenforced until U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce it in 1961.
The storytelling of these and others of Roundtree’s cases — not only those with national civil rights consequences but criminal and civil cases as well — are riveting for their first-person accounting. And that she also became an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1961 — to then juggle both ministry and a successful law practice — is notable.