If Cicely Tyson and Dovey Roundtree stood side by side, it would be hard to see what the soignee Broadway and Hollywood actress and the scrappy octogenarian attorney from Shaw have in common.
But the longtime lawyer has become essential to Tyson, as she has to scores of Washingtonians.
The women met after Tyson signed on to "Sweet Justice," a weekly drama that airs Saturday evenings on CBS. As she sought to define her role as Carrie Grace Battle, a feminist, civil rights lawyer and senior partner of a New Orleans law firm, she realized she had no role model to guide her.
Until she found Dovey Roundtree.
"The passion that still exists in her for justice and right is absolutely astounding," says Tyson. "Her drive, the gift that she has for sharing -- she is exactly the kind of woman I want Carrie Grace to evolve into."
"Someone once described her as a legal-aid clinic before there were legal-aid clinics," says Walter J. Leonard, a former president of Fisk University and mutual friend who put the two women together. "After Cicely described the role, and how she wanted to appear in it, I knew Dovey would be the appropriate person."
For Roundtree, inviting Tyson into her home and sharing her life was all in the nature of things. A minister as well as an attorney, she has nurtured younger people throughout her adult life -- just as she was helped when she was growing up. Her ministrations have touched people as different as Marion Barry and the Rev. George Stallings and people too poor to pay for her services. "It's just how they ring in my heart," she says of her decidedly non-ideological client list. "I think the court has got to be the place of fair play."
One of four daughters from a poor family in Charlotte, Roundtree didn't anticipate a particularly promising future. Her father died young. Charlotte was "segregated from birth to death," she says. And a college education seemed way out of reach -- especially for girls. But somehow, her grandmother's and mother's determination prevailed, and each of the sisters went to college.
"I was fortunate in coming from a family where education was on the table, and you knew it by the time you started crawling," says Roundtree.
Religion was on the table too. And the discipline of work. Her grandfather was a Methodist minister, her grandmother -- "our little red hen in the nest" -- laundered white shirts for businessmen downtown, her mother entered domestic service, and the girls did whatever jobs they could. "That work thing was important and was a thing of pride with me," Roundtree says. "I like to think of it as an art."
The second-oldest daughter, Roundtree would eventually make her way from Charlotte to Spelman College to the Army (where she was in the first class of WAACs) to Howard University's law school and its department of divinity and finally to a thriving law practice in Washington. Her progress was encouraged by a hitherto unconnected chain of women, black and white, who recognized her talents, and by family contacts that stretched from the South to the Midwest to the East Coast.
"Throughout my life," she says, "I have found that there is always somebody who would be the miracle-maker in your life if you but believe."
There were men who encouraged the determined young woman as well, among them labor organizer A. Philip Randolph. But it was the women whose voices resonated: Well-known figures like Mary McLeod Bethune, educator and founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and constitutional attorney Pauli Murray. Little-known family friends and teachers, like the one in eighth grade who helped her apply to college. And Mae M. Neptune, a Spelman literature professor. "She taught me how to think, helped me to become studious and to live unafraid. She turned on the light for me."
Bethune, whose exhortations gave Roundtree the moral and physical courage to elbow her way into the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, made perhaps the deepest impression. "She was fearless," says Roundtree. "I wanted to be like her. And sometimes now when I make speeches, I hear myself sound like her."
As Roundtree tells it, Bethune was convinced that the younger woman should be in the first class of WAACs. And when Roundtree -- all dressed up in red, white and blue for the occasion -- was refused an application at the Charlotte recruiting office, Bethune pushed her to try again farther north, in Richmond, where she was finally accepted. She eventually rose to the rank of captain.
Walter Leonard thinks that experience was crucial. "African Americans are mostly taught to protest the existence of power," he explains. "We seldom have an opportunity to practice the wielding of power. As a captain, Dovey had a taste of the use and the practice of power that, along with the GI Bill, encouraged her to go to law school."
Leonard met Roundtree in Washington in the early 1950s, soon after she passed the bar, when he testified against a policeman and needed a lawyer. He has admired her ever since. "The office was always full," he recalls of the bright blue row house on 11th Street NW where she still practices, "and maybe 50 percent of the people could pay their fees."
Nevertheless, Roundtree says, if she believed in her clients, she took them on anyway. Criminal cases. Domestic cases. Civil rights cases. Cases in which the people she represented disappointed her. "People do poorly by and for themselves. . . . I make my clients my children," says Roundtree, who is childless and has been divorced for many years. "I can see stars where there's nothing but a bunch of clay."
Once in a while she has been surprised by the depth of their gratitude. She tells the story of a man she successfully represented in a sexual assault case about a dozen years ago. At the time, she says, he could pay only $150 of his $3,500 fee. Then, three years ago, he turned up and counted out $2,500 more. " You don't know how you gave me my life back,' " she recalls him saying.
"I was overcome. He didn't tell me how he got it, but I had a little tax problem at the time, so I sent 10 percent to the church and the rest right on to the IRS."
Such real-life stories are more common in her practice than in the neatly tied-up episodes of "Sweet Justice" -- which Roundtree says she watches all the time, even if the endings are less than realistic. "You and I know that's not the way life generally turns out," she says. Age has slowed Roundtree only a little. At 80, she recalls the details of her life more precisely than someone half her age, remembering every schoolmate, every distant family relation, the address of every place she worked or lived. "I can seize upon and follow two straight lines at the same time," she says, "and I don't get bored." Though hampered a bit by deteriorating eyesight -- she is legally blind -- she gets by with her glasses, a large magnifying glass and her doctor's admonition to "just see." Most every day, she can be found at her 11th Street office.
Says Leonard: "The beauty and the capital of Dovey's life are measured by the number of people she has helped. It has been absolutely essential for her to feel that whatever gifts, talents or achievements she had would have been of no value if they were not shared."
Roundtree puts it differently. "I'm just trying to do what Miss Neptune said," she explains. "I'm just trying to pass it on." CAPTION: Dovey Roundtree in her office. Though legally blind, she continues to work by relying on a magnifying glass and her doctor's order that she "just see." CAPTION: "I have found that there is always somebody who would be the miracle-maker in your life if you but believe," says attorney and minister Dovey Roundtree.