Dovey Johnson Roundtree was an African American civil rights leader and activist, an attorney and an ordained minister. Her life and contributions are not that well known. Born in 1914, she came of age in a time when African Americans could take nothing for granted about their personal safety, and had no expectations at all about fair and equitable treatment in their personal or professional lives. Roundtree's life is a reminder of how things were, and what it took for her to endure and persist to bring about change. This is Roundtree's autobiography, a life that was rich with courage, fortitude and determination, and the faith that nurtured her through the good and bad times.
She took inspiration from her maternal grandmother, who had a third-grade education, but was an influential leader in Charlotte, North Carolina's black community; from Mary Mae Neptune, a white woman who was one of her professors and indefatigable mentors at Spelman College; and from Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt. In many ways she was the right woman at a very wrong time. In her actions she demonstrated that she was determined to help bend that “ … arc of the moral universe toward justice," sooner rather than later. There has never been a right time to fight injustices, and no one gives out invitations to the fight. Dovey Johnson Roundtree was someone who took it upon herself to fight for the right causes. During World War II, Dr. Bethune sent Dovey to be part of the first class of African American women trained as officers in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. That hellacious experience and her triumphs should be a clarion call to historians to do a great deal more research about Roundtree's experiences.
To fight injustice she found a true calling in the law. She attended Howard University, a black university, where she was in the minority as one of the few women in her class. In 1955, along with her law partner, Julius Winfield Roberston, they brought a case before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which was the first bus desegregation case that legally invalidated "separate but equal." According to Roundtree, "The ICC capitulated, issued regulations banning Jim Crow laws from buses, trains, and stations, and began enforcing them. And so it ended--not the hatred, nor the violence, but the fact of segregation on buses and in terminals and restrooms and places that served them." She and Robertson took on cases representing black clients, in either civil or criminal courts. After Robertson's death, Roundtree soldiered on defending cases and causes that seemed overwhelming and unwinnable. Her deep, abiding faith and ministry sustained her through times of fear and doubt.
This is her autobiography, and it is a much too-short accounting of a remarkable life. According to the book's bibliography, Roundtree's papers are at the National Archives for Black Women's History of the Mary McLeod Bethune National Historic Site. (Collection limited to Dovey Roundtree's military papers.)
Dovey Johnson Roundtree died in 2018 and was 104 years old.