Intimate Conversation with Katie McCabe

25 Jul

Katie McCabe is a National Magazine Award winner whose Washingtonian article on black surgical legend Vivien Thomas formed the basis for the HBO film Something the Lord Made, one of the highest rated original movies in HBO history and the winner of the 2004 Emmy and 2005 Peabody Awards. McCabe’s 2009 book Justice Older than the Law, co-authored with pioneering lawyer Dovey Roundtree, won the Association of Black Women Historians’ Letitia Woods Brown Book Prize.

BPM: What makes you powerful as a person and a writer?
I believe my power as a writer derives from my lifelong love affair with words and literature, my sense of the compelling stories hidden beneath the surface of outward events, and my fascination with unsung heroes. These passions came from my late parents, John and Kathleen Burns. They exemplified for me the kind of nobility and courage I endeavor to portray over and over again in my non-fiction as I seek out heroes and heroines whose lives have profoundly altered our world but whom history has forgotten or marginalized. My goal is to portray these history-makers with the vividness of fiction, and to bring them alive for future generations.

BPM: Where do you find your inspiration?
I find my inspiration in the lives of men and women who have, through their creative brilliance and the sheer force of their characters, managed against all odds to transform society. I was inspired, near the beginning of my writing career, by the story of cardiac surgery pioneer Vivien Thomas, the African American lab technician whose improbable segregation-era partnership with the volatile white surgeon Alfred Blalock led to the creation of modern heart surgery. The 2004 HBO film Something the Lord Made that was made from my 1989 Washingtonian magazine story on Mr. Thomas was described by the American Film Institute as “a revelation….a bittersweet story that is an important tool for America as it continues to search for a public vocabulary to discuss issues of race.”

That search has defined a large part of my work, which has focused on such improbable African American heroes as former Harlem Globetrotter Walt Kennedy, who pushed past crippling multiple sclerosis to coach a ragtag Alabama high school basketball team to the state finals, and college student JoAnne Johnson, whose illness became the catalyst for transforming the prospects of minority patients in need of bone marrow transplantation. When I discovered Dovey Johnson Roundtree through a Washington Post article in 1995, I knew I had found a woman whose nobility of spirit merited book-length treatment, and over the 15 years of our collaboration I have been profoundly inspired by her faith and her wisdom.

BPM: Finish this sentence: My writing offers the following legacy to future readers:
I have endeavored to pass on to the next generation of readers the stories of men and women who have prevailed over almost insuperable odds to achieve greatness in medicine, in the law, in athletics, and in public service. I believe that my legacy as a writer is that I have brought to life some truly extraordinary examples of the triumph of the human spirit. These examples speak to people of all races and backgrounds about what is possible when one draws strength from mentors and taps into one’s own well of courage, faith and tenacity.

BPM: Introduce us to your book, Justice Older than the Law.
Justice Older than the Law: the Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree tells the story of the fearless civil rights warrior who shattered Jim Crow in the courtrooms of the Nation’s Capital and the World War II military, and led the vanguard of women ordained to the ministry. In a richly voiced first-person account written with National Magazine Award winner Katie McCabe, Dovey Roundtree has created an intimate history of America that reads like a novel, capturing the sweep of nine tumultuous decades and a vision of justice that goes far beyond the law. Justice Older than the Law channels the soul and the voice of the woman First Lady Michelle Obama saluted as “an inspiration” on the occasion of the book’s release last July.

BPM: Introduce us to the primary message in Justice Older than the Law.
Justice Older than the Law is a book about love, faith, courage, law, justice, and the relationship among them. Through the story of one great soul who prevailed over and transformed the evil of a segregated society through the law and a greater justice, this book teaches us all about the redemptive power of goodness.

BPM: Share with us three life enhancing sections from Justice Older than the Law.

“There’s a gloriousness in the law, in its ability to bring us to the threshold of justice. And that counts for something — that chance, that hope, that open door. But if we are to cross that threshold, we must find it in ourselves, in our own hearts and minds, to live out the rulings and decrees and mandates of the courts.” (p. 176)

“Age has taken my strength, and it has robbed me of my eyesight, but I have yet a voice, and I raise it this day, at this hour, for our little children, that we may do right by them, that we who are their parents and their grandparents, their teachers and their pastors may nurture them and hold them to our bosoms, that we may baste them in love, that we may weave about them the cocoon of family…I have battled in my time for so many kinds of justice…But no battle of my half century at the bar has been so urgent as the one for the next generation. If every matter before every court in America were foreclosed this moment as a litigable issue, there would yet remain the cause of our little children. They are the case at bar. Theirs is the case I plead now.”  (p. 222)

“The kind of justice I seek today is older by far than the law, and it resides in people’s hearts. It is nursed into being not primarily in the pulpit or the classroom or the courtroom, but in the home, at the fireside and the dining room table, in the thousands of intimate moments when mother and father and children weave their bond. It is in this sanctuary that the passing on takes place, that the ‘miracle in the hearts of men’ of which Dr. King spoke unfolds itself.” (p. 223)

BPM: What motivated you to create this book now?
I discovered Dovey Johnson Roundtree 15 years ago, when I picked up the Style section of the Washington Post, and was completely arrested by the photo of Dovey that appeared there, alongside an article on her collaboration with actress Cicely Tyson, who’d modeled her television character of a civil rights lawyer on Dovey. In her face, I saw wisdom, and pain, toughness and tenderness, and I wanted to know her story. And I was drawn, too, by the quote from Dovey beneath the photo: “There’s always somebody who would be the miracle-maker in your life, if you but believe.” Here was a lawyer talking of miracles, a woman who spoke in the cadences of a Southern minister, an attorney who clearly had ideas about justice that reached beyond the courtroom. The improbability of it all struck me with such force that I called her that week, and after one conversation knew that I wanted – that I needed – to write her story.

I sought her out in her tiny office in a row house in Northwest Washington, took note of her broken down chairs and the clients who filled the waiting room. I learned quickly that they brought with them not only their legal troubles, but troubled spirits. “I make my clients my children,” she’d said in that Washington Post article. “I can see stars where there’s nothing but a bunch of clay.” I followed her into the courtroom, watched her broker agreements between warring spouses and plead for “a little healing.” I saw the judges there, who had known her for decades, defer to her wisdom, and call her for advice.

Her story was much more than that of a unique lawyer, I found. For the next ten years, I spent time with her in her home, with her extended family, conducting hundreds of interviews, and continuing those interviews by phone after she retired and moved to her childhood home in Charlotte, North Carolina. In those years I learned that Dovey’s life transcends even the remarkable particulars of her achievements. Her story is one of spiritual as well as historic dimension. In the hours when she told me of her grandmother, her upbringing, her deeply nuanced view of justice, I learned that more than anything, it is the breadth of her vision that makes her who she is. Her desire to “cure the aching heart, the bewildered soul,” as she once told me, to do what she calls “fix the brokenness” is what made me know that hers was a story I wanted to tell. It is this vision – this ability to see stars in a lump of clay – that drew me, most of all, to Dovey.

BPM: What issues in today’s society do you address in the book?
Contemporary America urgently needs this book. As we contemplate at fifty years’ distance the meaning of Brown v. Board in the light of recent Supreme Court rulings, as we struggle with issues of race at every turn, there is a sense that we’ve lost our bearings. What is justice? What sort of a society are we aiming toward? How can we capture the values we seem to have lost? How do we arrest what Dovey calls “the demon of violence” that is destroying our cities? To be able to tap into the world view of a 96-year-old living legend who brought her fight into the streets, the jailhouses, the churches, and ultimately, into the hearts of the individuals to whom she ministered, is an extraordinary opportunity, I believe, for people of all races. Like all truly great stories, Dovey’s teaches us essential truths without seeming to. Indeed, this book is designedly non-political. And although Dovey is a minister, her book is not overtly religious. It simply tells a story – a story of one human being’s quest for a kind of justice far beyond the law, with all the attendant wisdom such a quest implies.

BPM: Before we end the interview, define SUCCESS. What part does GRATITUDE play in achieving success, in your opinion?
Success, in my opinion, lies in the ability to harness one’s God-given talents for the good of the world. Gratitude is central to authentic success, because no one achieves success alone. Rather, we are deeply indebted to those who raised us, shaped us, mentored us, and it’s only when we fully acknowledge that debt and our obligation to pass on what our mentors have given us that we are fully realized human beings. Dovey Roundtree’s story is one long, eloquent argument for this kind of success.

BPM: What do you think makes your book different from others on the same subject?
There are no other books on Dovey Roundtree, so it’s unique in that sense. But I believe that the book is also distinguished from others of its genre – that is, other civil rights memoirs. What makes it unique is its voice, which I channeled into print from thousands of hours of tape-recorded interviews with Dovey over more than a decade. Justice Older than the Law is, in my mind and in Dovey’s, more than an autobiography of a civil rights warrior. It is an expression of a vision of justice older by far than the law, and we believe our book speaks movingly and urgently to our racially troubled times.

BPM: Share with us your latest news, awards or upcoming book releases.
Dovey and I are proud that the book won the 2009 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians, which praised Justice Older than the Law for the way it “aided in connecting with the person and the pathos of Dovey” by its use of the novel format. The judges stated, “Your work enhances our understanding of the importance of storytelling as biography.”

We are also deeply gratified by the fact that law firms in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Hartford and Charlotte have embraced the book and made it a part of their diversity programming. On July 8, a truly extraordinary event is taking place: Thirty law firms in Washington, DC will be featuring the book at a “Law Night” for the rising ninth graders at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school located in Anacostia, where Dovey ministered for 35 years at Allen Chapel AME Church. The Law Night, which will be held at Dovey’s alma mater, Howard University Law School, will bring together the Thurgood Marshall Academy students with attorneys and summer associates from the 30 law firms for a program I will present on Dovey and the book.

One of the great crusades of Dovey’s later years in Washington was to find a way to quell the tide of violence among young people, to do what she called “heal the brokenness” in society and especially the black family. This book is part of her healing effort. She believes that her story will point young people to the essential truths that will sustain them amid the chaos of contemporary culture and set them on the path of goodness. At age 96, she is prevented by gravely ill health from participating in these and other book promotion events, but she continues to celebrate with me the ripple effects of the book on which we worked together for so many years.

BPM: How can our readers reach you online?
To learn more about the book, to see the First Lady’s letter saluting Dovey, and to contact writer Katie McCabe and watch her presenting the book on YouTube, please visit

To order from the University Press of Mississippi:

To order from Amazon:

Please also visit the “Justice Older than the Law” fan club on Facebook.



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