Dovey Johnson Roundtree is the 2011 Janet Reno Torchbearer Award recipient.
Ms. Roundtree is a pioneering civil rights lawyer, Army veteran, and ordained minister who, in 1962, became the first African American member of the WBA. She has played a central role in shaping the same history of which she is a part. Ms. Roundtree, a protégé of the great black educator Mary McLeod Bethune, was in the first class of black women officers in the military during World War II, and through her recruiting for the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) she carved out a place for black servicewomen in a Jim Crow military several years before the military was legally desegregated by executive order. Her groundbreaking 1955 bus desegregation case in behalf of fellow WAC Sarah Keys stands as a milestone in the legal battle for civil rights; Ms. Roundtree won the case against the notoriously segregationist Interstate Commerce Commission, demolishing the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ in the field of interstate travel. The case, Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, was invoked by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy during the violence in the South during the Freedom Riders’ campaign of 1961, helping to bring an end to Jim Crow in travel across state lines.
In 1962, Ms. Roundtree was nominated for membership to then all-white WBA by then-WBA President (now Senior Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia) Joyce Hens Green The nomination was extremely controversial, with several of WBA’s board members vehemently opposing the nomination. Only when Judge Green demanded a vote by the full membership was Ms. Roundtree admitted to the WBA as its first black member.
Ms. Roundtree’s criminal defense work in Washington’s all-white judicial system during the1960’s paved the way for a generation of black attorneys who followed her. In the summer of 1965, with racial tension at its height across the country, reporters, judges and law students packed the US District Court to watch Ms. Roundtree defend a black laborer accused of the murder of an alleged Kennedy mistress in the case of the United States v. Ray Crump. She earned legendary status as the woman lawyer who tried one of Washington’s most sensational murder cases dressed in a pink-and-white suit, who stood alone against the US Attorney’s office, skewered the state’s eyewitnesses, successfully dismantled the circumstantial case erected against her client, and quoted Shakespeare on the sacredness of a man’s good name. In so doing, she won for herself an honored place among the white majority, simply by outperforming them.
Accepting the award on behalf of Ms. Roundtree will be Katie McCabe, the co-author, with Ms. Roundtree, of Justice Older than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree. The book is the result of an extraordinary 10-year collaboration between the two women and was recognized with the Association of Black Women Historians’ 2009 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize for the best publication on an African American woman. Ms. McCabe is a nationally-recognized non-fiction writer whose work on unsung heroes, particularly in the African American community, has garnered wide attention. Her 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 2004 HBO film “Something the Lord Made,” winner of three Emmys and a Peabody Award.