Civil Rights in America, a New but Old Debate. Meet My Grandfather, Julius W. Robertson, Esq.

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WASHINGTON, DC - Among Attorney Julius W. Robertson many talents as an author, civil rights activist and lawyer, he was also the lead attorney on the case of Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, and he is my maternal grandfather.

I believe that his passion for fairness, equal treatment for all individuals regardless of color, religion, or sex instilled and inspired me to advocate for the rights of people across the globe whose plight is often overshadowed by the latest trends, capricious and specious news, or banal entertainment.

Julius Robertson graduated at the top of his class from Howard University in 1948 with combined degrees (B.A. and LL.B.); and today would have received the order of the coif for his academic standing.

Upon graduation, Attorney Robertson established the law firm of Robertson & Roundtree in 1950 as a firm with junior partners, of which Attorney Dovey J. Roundtree was the first. Attorney Roundtree has acknowledged that Attorney Robertson was her mentor as well as her law partner. He was the “majority” partner of Robertson & Roundtree, receiving 51% of the firm’s income to Attorney Roundtree’s 49%. Today, Attorney Robertson would be referred to as “senior and managing partner.”

According to written reports and my mother's anecdotal stories, my grandfather was a brilliant litigator, distinguished civil rights activist and author, much sought after speaker, and well-respected member of the legal community in good standing. Attorney Robertson was admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia, District of Columbia Court of Appeals, U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, U.S. Court of Claims, and the United States Supreme Court.

Attorney Robertson was a member in good standing of the American Bar Association—one of its first ‘official’ Black members, the National Bar Association and the District of Columbia Bar Association—all until his untimely death in 1961.

Attorney Robertson was recognized as a gifted intellectual with a broad range of knowledge of national and international geopolitics. He spoke, read, and wrote fluent German and was invited in the 1950’s to sit on the World Court of Israel after the close of the Nuremberg Trials. After graduation from law school, Attorney Robertson received a fellowship to Harvard University Law School but was unable to accept the offer.

Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, 64 MCC 769 (1955) is a landmark civil rights case in the United States in which the segregationist Interstate Commerce Commission, in response to a complaint filed in 1953 by a Women's Army Corps (WAC) private named Sarah Louise Keys, broke with its past racist practice and banned the segregation of black passengers in buses traveling across state lines.

The November 1955 ruling, publicly announced six days before Rosa Parks' historic defiance of state Jim Crow laws on Montgomery buses, applied the United States Supreme Court's logic in Brown v. Board of Education (347 US 483 (1954)) for the the first time to the field of interstate transportation, and closed the legal loophole that private bus companies had long exploited to impose their own Jim Crow regulations on black interstate travelers.

Keys v. Carolina Coach was the only explicit rejection ever made by either a court or a federal administrative body of the Plessy v. Ferguson (163 US 537 (1896)) 'separate but equal' doctrine in the field of bus travel across state lines, and the ruling made legal history both at the time of its issuance and again in 1961, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy invoked it in his successful battle to end Jim Crow travel during the Freedom Riders' campaign.

Argued by pioneering civil rights lawyer Julius Winfield Robertson [founder of law firm, Robertson & Roundtree] and his partner, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, on the eve of the explosion of civil rights protest across America, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, along with its companion train desegregation case, NAACP v. St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Company, 298 ICC 335 (1955), represents a crucial milestone in the legal battle for racial justice.

CASE BACKGROUND: MIDNIGHT IN THE JIM CROW SOUTH

The Keys case originated in an incident that occurred at a bus station in the tiny North Carolina town of Roanoke Rapids shortly after midnight on August 1, 1952, when African-American WAC private Sarah Keys was forced by a local bus driver to yield her seat in the front of the vehicle to a white Marine as she traveled homeward on furlough. At the time of the incident, Jim Crow laws entirely governed Southern bus travel, despite a 1946 Supreme Court ruling meant to put an end to the practice.

That decision, Morgan v. Virginia (328 US 373 (1946)), had declared state Jim Crow laws inoperative on interstate buses on the basis that the imposition of widely varying statutes on black passengers moving across state lines generated multiple seat changes and thus created the kind of disorder and inconsistency forbidden by the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Southern carriers managed to dodge the Morgan decision, however, by passing segregation rules of their own, and those rules remained outside the purview of state and federal courts because they pertained to private businesses. In addition, the federal agency charged with regulating the carriers, the Interstate Commerce Commission, had historically interpreted the Interstate Commerce Act's discrimination ban as permitting separate accommodations for the races so long as they were equal.

The ICC had ruled so consistently against black complainants since its establishment in 1887 that it had become known as "the Supreme Court of the Confederacy." The ICC's 'separate but equal' policy, upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States in a 1950 railway dining car segregation case known as Henderson v. United States (399 US 816 (1950)), thus remained the norm in public transportation.

So hardened was the practice of Jim Crow in Southern travel when Sarah Keys made her journey in 1952 that even black travelers who had started their journeys in the North on integrated trains or buses were, with few exceptions, forced to comply with Jim Crow carrier regulations once they crossed into the South.

When Sarah Keys departed her WAC post in Fort Dix, New Jersey on the evening of July 31, 1952 for her home in the town of Washington, North Carolina, she boarded an integrated bus and transferred without incident in Washington, D.C. to a Carolina Trailways vehicle, taking the fifth seat from the front in the white section.

When the bus pulled into the town of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, however, a new driver took the wheel and demanded that she comply with the carrier's Jim Crow regulation by moving to the so-called "colored section" in the back of the bus so that a white Marine could occupy her seat. When Keys refused to move, the driver emptied the bus, directed the other passengers to another vehicle, and barred Keys from boarding it.

An altercation ensued and Keys was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct, jailed incommunicado overnight, then convicted of the disorderly conduct charge and fined $25. When that charge was sustained on appeal by a North Carolina lower court, Keys and her father brought the matter to the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) office in Washington, D.C., headed by Howard University Law School professor Frank D. Reeves.

With Thurgood Marshall, Reeves had run the Legal Defense Fund's New York City office in the early 1940s, and he was working with Marshall and his team in the early 1950s on the legal drive to end school segregation that would culminate in the groundbreaking 1954 Brown v. Board decision. Reeves referred the Sarah Keys matter to his former law student, Julius W. Robertson and his partner, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a World War II WAC who had herself been subjected to Jim Crow during her military travels.

A THREE-YEAR BATTLE FOR JUSTICE

The match of client and attorneys proved fortuitous. Though Robertson and Roundtree were but a year at the bar in the summer of 1952 when they undertook to represent Sarah Keys, they had been schooled at Howard Law by such renowned civil rights lawyers as Thurgood Marshall, James Madison Nabrit, Jr., and George E.C. Hayes and were deeply involved in the movement to dismantle segregation in the courts.

It seems at this time, my grandfather also enjoyed some press for his part in identifying and taking down a con-artist impersonator.

Source: Annette Mae McGee née Robertson. She is my mother and one of Attorney Robertson's surviving daughters.

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