Justice Older than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree


From the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, to the segregated courtrooms of the nation's capital, from the white male bastion of the World War II Army to the male stronghold of Howard University Law School, from the pulpits of churches where women had waited for years for the right to minister-in all these places Dovey Johnson Roundtree (b. 1914) sought justice. Though she is a legendary African American figure in the legal community of Washington, D.C., she remains largely ...

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From the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, to the segregated courtrooms of the nation's capital, from the white male bastion of the World War II Army to the male stronghold of Howard University Law School, from the pulpits of churches where women had waited for years for the right to minister-in all these places Dovey Johnson Roundtree (b. 1914) sought justice. Though she is a legendary African American figure in the legal community of Washington, D.C., she remains largely unknown to the American public.

Justice Older than the Law is her story, the product of a remarkable, ten-year collaboration with National Magazine Award winner Katie McCabe. As a protégé of Mary McLeod Bethune, Roundtree became one of the first women to break the gender and color barriers in the United States military. Inspired by Thurgood Marshall and James Madison Nabrit, Jr., at Howard University Law School, Roundtree went on to make history by winning a 1955 bus desegregation case, Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. That decision demolished "separate but equal" in the realm of interstate transportation and enabled Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to combat southern resistance to the Freedom Riders' campaign in 1961.

At a time when black attorneys had to leave the courthouses to use the bathrooms, Roundtree took on Washington's white legal establishment and prevailed. She led the vanguard of women ordained to the ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1961 and merged her law practice with her ministry to fight for families and children being destroyed by urban violence. Hers is a vision of biblical and social justice older by far than the law, and her life story speaks movingly and urgently to our racially troubled times.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Dovey Roundtree is my hero. As a young public defender, I watched with amazement her great work in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Knowing what she has overcome and her amazing accomplishments as not only a graduate of Spelman College and Howard Law School, but also as a superb lawyer, I am convinced that her story will be comforting to anyone facing obstacles. This is not only a great read, but a must read. I recommend it to anyone thinking about justice or trying to find ways to overcome challenges they face."

—Charles J. Ogletree, Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, and author of Without Parole: America New Death Penalty

"I simply loved this book. I have a proclivity for fiction and find the character "Dovey" a real, heartfelt woman whose humble beginnings reflect the progress of the race from the 1920s to the 1960s. Her matriculation at Spelman, her internal conflict entering the "middle class," mentoring by Mary McLeod Bethune, all humanize the raw emotions thousands of early twentieth-century achievers must have encountered with living the dreams of the entire African American community. Kudos in crafting an engaging read from the well-lived life of minister, lawyer, military and humanitarian Dovey. Amazing story."

—Citation of the judges, 2009 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize, Association of Black Women Historians

"Justice Older than the Law moved me at times to tears. Dovey Roundtree's nobility, the courage and effectiveness of her work, are enough to restore one's hope for the human race. The book, though it describes an era that is past, is above all a study of something that doesn't change much—human character and its possibilities."

Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow

"In Justice Older Than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree we meet the pioneering lawyer and minister who was among the first black female World War II military officers. We learn how she prevailed in a desegregation case that ended 'separate but equal' interstate bus travel and won acquittal for a slow-witted black man accused of murdering a mistress of John F. Kennedy.

"But the new book also manages to immerse readers in Roundtree's life, creating a real sense of what it was like to live as a black person in segregated Charlotte and the Jim Crow South. Often, the narrative reads like a work of fiction. McCabe accomplishes this partly by writing in Roundtree's first-person voice. 'I became more and more convinced, if my goal was to get her soul and her spirit across to people, that could only be done with her voice,' McCabe says.

"To mark the book's publication, first lady Michelle Obama has written a letter of tribute. 'It is on the shoulders of people like Dovey Johnson Roundtree that we stand today,' the first lady writes, 'and it is with her commitment to our core ideals that we will continue moving toward a better tomorrow.'"

Charlotte Observer

"Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe invite you to enter a home, sit down in the 'Living Room of a Black American Family,' to visit with them for a little while. You will learn so very much about determination, values, courage, manners, and the moral strength of this family. The experience will enhance your appreciation for the struggles and achievements against the odds, and the meanness of stereotypes. And you will observe the beauty and grace of honest efforts toward good and useful lives. You will see and learn American history and human history at its best."

—Dr. Walter J. Leonard, former president of Fisk University and founding committee chair of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University

"To read how Dovey Roundtree struggled to help others and to make a difference in our world is exalting. This book tells what one determined, unstoppable woman did with her life to change laws and traditions to make America a better, fairer, and more respectful country. It gives us another view of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and other historic icons through her interaction with them. Katie McCabe has done a formidable job of entering Dovey's mind, memory, and soul to produce this first-person account of a woman of our history whose virtues we should enshrine on a pedestal of honor."

—Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, USAF (Ret.), President, Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Katie McCabe, Bethesda, Maryland, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washingtonian Magazine, Baltimore Magazine, and Reader's Digest, among others. Her National Magazine Award-winning article on black medical legend Vivien Thomas was the basis for the HBO film Something the Lord Made, winner of three Emmys and a 2005 Peabody Award.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Charlotte, North Carolina, is a retired lawyer, an Army veteran, and an A.M.E. minister.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2009

    Closing the Gap: the Black American Experience/Prospective and U.S. History

    Access to the kind of knowledge and insight provided by Ms. Roundtree is unique and long over-due, especially for anyone who wasn't born before 1950. After reading this book, I am grateful for her contributions to American life. What personal fortitude she possesses! I wish I could meet her!

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