NEW YORK — The jurors were looking at her when they filed into court. That, Dovey Johnson Roundtree knew, could have immense significance for her client, a feeble-minded day laborer accused of one of the most sensational murders of the mid-20th century.
Little had augured well for that client, Raymond Crump Jr., during his eight-day trial in US District Court in Washington: Crump, who had been found near the crime scene, was black and poor. The victim was white, glamorous and supremely well connected. The country, in summer 1965, seethed with racial tension amid the surging civil rights movement.
Federal prosecutors had amassed a welter of circumstantial evidence — including 27 witnesses and more than 50 exhibits — to argue that on Oct. 12, 1964, Crump had carried out the execution-style shooting of Mary Pinchot Meyer, a Washington socialite said to have been a former lover of President John F. Kennedy.
By contrast, Rev. Roundtree, who died Monday at 104, had chosen to present just three witnesses and a single exhibit to the jury, which comprised men and women, blacks and whites. Her closing argument was only 20 minutes long.
Now, on July 30, the jury, having deliberated, was back. The court clerk handed the verdict slip to the judge, Howard F. Corcoran. For most observers, inside the courtroom and out, conviction — and an accompanying death sentence — was a foregone conclusion.
“Members of the jury,” Corcoran said. “We have your verdict, which states that you find the defendant, Ray Crump Jr., not guilty.”
Rev. Roundtree’s defense made her reputation as a litigator of acuity, concision, and steel who could win even the most hopeless trials. And this in a case for which she had received a fee of $1 — and in a courthouse where she was not allowed to use the law library, cafeteria, or restroom.
“As a woman, and as a woman of color in an age when black lawyers had to leave the courthouse to use the bathrooms, she dared to practice before the bar of justice and was unflinching,” Katie McCabe, the co-author of Rev. Roundtree’s memoir, “Justice Older Than the Law,” said in an interview for this obituary in 2016. “She was a one-woman Legal Aid Society before people used that term.”
Rev. Roundtree’s victory in the Crump case was not her first noteworthy accomplishment, and it was by no means her last. Born to a family of slender means in the Jim Crow South, the Rev. Dovey Johnson Roundtree, as she was long formally known, was instrumental in winning a spate of advances for blacks and women in midcentury America, blazing trails in the military, the legal profession, and the ministry.
As an inaugural member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, she became, in 1942, one of the first women of any race to be commissioned an Army officer. Attaining the rank of captain, she personally recruited scores of African-American women for wartime service.
As a Washington lawyer, she helped secure a landmark ban on racial segregation in interstate bus travel in a case that originated in 1952 — three years before Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat in Montgomery, Ala.
As a cleric, Rev. Roundtree was one of the first women to be ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 2009, in a statement honoring the publication of “Justice Older Than the Law,” the first lady, Michelle Obama, said, “As an Army veteran, lawyer and minister, Roundtree set a new path for the many women who have followed her and proved once again that the vision and perseverance of a single individual can help to turn the tides of history.”
Yet for all her perseverance, and all her prowess, Rev. Roundtree remained, by temperament, choice, and political circumstance, comparatively unknown.
“One has to start with the fact — and I think it’s an acknowledged fact — that the civil rights movement was notoriously sexist,” McCabe said in 2016. “There were many men who did not appreciate being ground up into hamburger meat by Dovey Roundtree.”
The second of four daughters of James Eliot Johnson, a printer, and Lela (Bryant) Johnson, a domestic, Dovey Mae Johnson was born in Charlotte, N.C., on April 17, 1914. Her father died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, and Dovey, her mother, and sisters were taken in by her maternal grandparents, the Rev. Clyde L. Graham, a minister in the AME Zion Church, and Rachel Bryant Graham.
Reared in her grandfather’s shotgun-shack parsonage, Dovey was profoundly influenced by her grandmother, who despite having only a third-grade education became a revered member of the community.
Born not long after the Civil War ended, Rachel Graham had weathered the death of her first husband at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. She lived with feet so badly crippled that she was in constant pain: When she was a teenager, she had thwarted a white man’s attempts to rape her by running. Enraged, he stomped her feet, shattering them, to ensure she would never run again.
Encouraged by a friend of her grandmother’s, the distinguished black educator Mary McLeod Bethune, young Dovey Johnson set her sights on becoming a doctor. She enrolled at Spelman College, the Atlanta women’s college then known as the black Vassar.
There, Rev. Roundtree later wrote, “I was in my own way an outsider — a poor working student in a sea of black privilege.” She held three simultaneous jobs, including domestic work for a white family, in order to remain in school. She graduated in 1938 with a double major in English and biology.
With no money for medical school, she spent the next three years teaching in South Carolina. In 1941, she made her way to Washington and Bethune’s office at the National Council of Negro Women.
Bethune and her close friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, were just then pressing for the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which would admit a cohort of women for training as Army officers.
After her military service, Rev. Roundtree entered Howard University’s law school on the GI Bill, one of only five women in her class. The law quickly became a consuming passion, so much so that it cost her her marriage to her college sweetheart, William A. Roundtree, whom she had wed in 1946.
Rev. Roundtree graduated from law school in 1950 and went into practice with a classmate, Julius Winfield Robertson. There was little remunerative work for Robertson & Roundtree at first. Committed to helping disenfranchised clients, the partners were often paid, Rev. Roundtree recalled in a 1994 interview, with “two dozen eggs, a bag of greens and leftover poundcake.”