Dean Robb (r) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (l)
By Jacob Wheeler
Dean Robb, an iconic civil rights lawyer and longtime Suttons Bay resident, passed away Sunday, Dec. 2, at age 94. Robb, who grew up on a farm in southern Illinois, helped coordinate legal support for civil rights demonstrators and activists in the early 1960s in the Deep South and met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., following the civil rights leader’s release in 1963 from Birmingham jail.
Robb had been in hospice care in his Detroit apartment since Nov. 16 after receiving a heart valve replacement. His death was reported Sunday evening by his son Matt, 32, who authored the 2010 book Dean Robb An Unlikely Radical to honor his father.
“December 2, 2018 was the final sunset in an extraordinary life,” wrote Matt on Facebook. “Dean passed with the sun at 5:05 p.m. this evening holding his family’s hands, singing songs in his heart, and beaming love to all those who touched his blessed life. … As he took his final breaths, I gave him a pen to take into the Hereafter and said ‘your story will continue to be written forever’.”
In 1949 Dean Robb was a founding partner of the Detroit law firm Goodman, Crockett, Eden and Robb—the first interracial law firm in Michigan, during the McCarthy “Red Scare” era and the Civil Rights movement. According to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Robb was 37 years old in 1961 when he began helping a group called “Friends of the South” organize 25 civil rights attorneys, mostly from Detroit, to help get civil rights activists out of jail, challenge illegal arrests, and work with southern lawyers and civil rights organizations. In 1963, he organized an interracial conference of 10-12 southern lawyers in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke shortly after he was released from a Birmingham jail.
“The door opened and in walked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth,” Robb wrote in An Unlikely Radical. “The room erupted into applause and whistles. Suddenly, the somewhat nervous excitement of the conference had transformed into a celebration.”
Jack Lessenberry, a syndicated columnist and friend of Robb, wrote in a 2014 column: “they wanted to register people to vote. Incredible as it may seem today, almost no black Americans were allowed to vote in Mississippi half a century ago. The summer before, Medgar Evers, a field organizer for the NAACP, had been assassinated. … Many of those who went down to Mississippi were attacked. Neither Dean Robb nor Claudia Morcom scare easily. That summer they were, Dean said, ‘scared, but not intimidated’.”
Robb’s biggest civil rights case was a civil lawsuit against the FBI filed by the family of murdered Detroit freedom rider Viola Liuzzo. The Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members on the last night of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March in Alabama. She was the first and only white woman killed during the civil rights movement, according to Robb.
In the late ‘70s, Robb worked on behalf of battered women, including a landmark case in which he successfully defended a Gaylord woman accused of murdering her abusive husband. It received national publicity and helped to change the country’s attitudes on domestic violence. He has also been an advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian citizens. Robb was the founder of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a national organization that works pro bono on cases dealing with civil rights and liberties, consumer and victim’s rights, the rights of workers, environmental protection and safety, the rights of the poor, and the civil justice system.
Dean Robb first found solidarity with the underserved while growing up on a farm in southern Illinois.
“A couple things in the Depression that I think helped me kind of line up with the underdog was there was a black family that lived down in the country about a mile and half from our farm, and they were really poor,” he told the Greatest American Lawyer blog. “They had, I don’t know how many children, there were a lot of kids and an older man that was supposedly in his 90s born in slavery. And he was a neighbor of ours, and his wife would come every week to help my mother with the washing, and mom would always send her home with a couple of cloth sacks full of food and things that she could share with them, and I think that sharing that I saw that my mother did with this black family gave me a little bit of a nudge towards racial equality because the contrast between, we were poor, but they were really poor, and I didn’t know much about discrimination at that point.”
“His life was changed by his experience in the Navy, during World War II, when he saw how unfairly blacks were treated,” wrote Lessenberry. “He saw even more discrimination while he went to law school at Wayne State University in Detroit. One day, the dean called Mr. Robb in.”
“‘You are a talented young man, but there is no future in law for radicals,’ he was warned. ‘You have to get along with the power structure.’ Mr. Robb thanked him and ignored his advice. Nor did he ever regret it.”
An Unlikely Radical, written by Dean’s son Matt, now 32, and published in 2010, reads, “Dean Robb’s life seemed always to collide with the currents of history. The story of a young farmboy from southern Illinois whose life led him to become a radical lawyer in Detroit takes us from common yet solid beginnings and leads us to the crucible that changed American life—the confrontations and controversies that surrounded civil rights and the Vietnam War in the 1950s and ’60s.”
The book won the 2011 National Indie Excellence Award for Historical Biography.
“Caught between two worlds, Dean was raised to a simple life of hard work, faith, family, and community; as he grew he was driven to break boundaries, to shape the world around him by fighting for fairness, equality, and humanity. … Dean’s remarkable life can teach all of us about saying yes to the opportunities that are presented to us. With his openness, determination, and willingness to challenge comfort zones, Dean built a life that speaks to us about a great generation, and will inspire our own visions for generations to come.”
Praise for An Unlikely Radical came from Michiganders on the vanguard of progressive politics.
“A powerful insight into the last half century of our tumultuous times,” wrote the late Helen Milliken.“It is also a saga of one young farm boy who navigated and surmounted our ever-shifting societal waters. Dean Robb impels us to search more deeply into our own compass for inspiration and, yes, for courage and compassion.”
“Since we were young Michiganders, we knew that there was one man in our state we could always go to for help to right a wrong,” wrote Michael Moore. “Dean Robb was and is fearless, relentless, compassionate and the Great Defender of the people who otherwise have no voice.”
“Dean Robb has given his life in the fight for equality, environmental quality and civil rights,” wrote Michael Delp. “He is fearless, uncompromising and his court room prowess has marked legal battles from Selma to Traverse City. He is the Clarence Darrow of our time and this chronicle of his life as an attorney is fundamental reading for anyone concerned with the necessity for justice and the rule of law.”
Matt Robb, who graduated from Wayne State University Law School last spring, 67 years after his dad, told the Detroit News last year why he wrote the book about his father.
“We sat at the breakfast table every morning, drank coffee, and Dad would tell me stories from his past. I would help him organize his thoughts and craft the narrative,” he said. “On a personal level, it was just a blessing to get that time with my dad because he was 61 when I was born. We never knew how much time we’d have together, and a health scare inspired me to take the time and make sure we recorded his remarkable life for future generations. My dad and I really bonded and we learned how to work together.”
“My dad is one of my heroes and my best friend. He has an insatiable love for people, and he treats everyone like a good neighbor. When he talks about his clients, his eyes just light up. For him, law is about putting clients first.”
Matt, who was 25 at the time he wrote the book, wasn’t political himself; he was an All-State golfer who won two state championships at Suttons Bay in 2000 and 2001, wrote Lessenberry in a 2010 Toledo Blade column. In 2009, Dean had a serious attack of congestive heart failure, and Matt realized he wouldn’t be here forever. So Dean prodded his son to work with him on a book.
“From a pretty early age, I started to get the feeling my dad was a little different,” said Matt, who worked as a social studies teacher at a school on the east side of Detroit, as part of the Teach for America program, after he wrote the book.
Legacy in Leelanau
Dean Robb moved to Leelanau County in 1971 because, he told the Leelanau Enterprise in 2011, “I had a mid-life crisis, and I wanted to leave the city and get in the country, so I left Detroit and came up here.”
He continued his civil rights work from Suttons Bay.
Robb was also known for his “Mark Twain” impersonations, which he used at special occasions, including at a 2008 rally in Leland to stump for the candidacy of Barack Obama, the Enterprise reported. Meanwhile, Matt worked on Obama’s campaign as a full-time volunteer.
Robb continued his radical advocacy through his golden years. He told the Enterprise in 2011 that the one person he’d trade places with would be PresidentObama, in order “to end the war in Afghanistan. I’d pull our troops out of every country in the world. … All these wars, the war on terror, the war on drugs, they’re all a mistake. The tail is wagging the dog. The military industrial complex is calling the shots and that’s terrible.”
Leelanau County’s paper of record asked Robb which of his accomplishments made him most proud.
“The thing I’m proudest of is that I’ve stuck up for the little guy,” Robb told the Enterprise. “I’m against bullying and discriminations of all kinds. I believe in equality for everybody, and I hope that’s what my signature is.”
At his alma mater Wayne State, the law school established the annual Dean Robb Public Interest Lecture to inspire law students, attorneys, public-interest groups and everyday citizens to become more active in public service and public-interest law.
In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Robb helped organize and fundraise for six Leelanau County and 31 Detroit black, white and Hispanic high school students to take a two-week trip that retraced the steps of civil rights “Freedom Riders” into the Deep South a half century before. The six Leelanau County students (from each of the county’s four public schools) were selected through an essay-writing and interview process that asked why the students wanted to participate in the tour and what they could bring back to this area from the trip.
Organized by the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, the “2013 Freedom Tour” honored the work of original civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States in 1961 to challenge non-enforcement of a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.
Matt Robb encourages anyone who Dean helped or inspired to write a letter to the family and share their story. “What Dean wanted most was to be a good neighbor to all of his fellow human beings and to see us treat each other with love, kindness and respect.” Send correspondence to the family at PO Box 879, Suttons Bay, MI 49682, or by emailing matthewzrobb (AT) gmail (DOT) com.