April 19, 2010
By KRISTINE MORRIS
SUTTONS BAY - "I think it's pretty amazing that a farm boy from
southern Illinois with Republican, Calvinist parents grew up to be an
attorney, civil rights activist, and independent Democrat" said Dean
A. Robb, of Suttons Bay.
Robb, who graduated from Wayne State University Law School in 1949,
was honored for his contributions to the legal profession and to
society at WSU's annual "Treasure of Detroit Gala" on March 27. The
award was one of the many he has received over the course of a long
and distinguished career that has spanned McCarthyism, the Civil
Rights Movement, the Women's Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement,
and the ongoing struggle for gay and lesbian rights (see sidebar).
It was his service in the Navy during World War II that awakened Robb
to what was to become his life's work.
"I saw how poorly black people, even college graduates, were treated
in the Navy," he said. "They were segregated and made to do the most
menial jobs. I came out of the service on a mission."
In 1949, Robb was a founding partner of the Detroit law firm,
Goodman, Crochett, Eden and Robb, the first inter-racial law firm in
the nation. He was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and was
part of "Friends of the South," a committee that worked to raise
funds to support the struggle for civil rights in southern states.
Although racial segregation was widespread, it was especially
virulent in Mississippi, where violence was common.
The state lacked enough lawyers to defend victims of racial
discrimination and racially-based attacks there were only five
working on the cases, and they were overwhelmed. Robb's law firm
suggested sending volunteer lawyers down to help, and in 1963, the
Detroit chapter of the National Lawyers Guild organized a seminar in
"We invited every black lawyer in the south to spend two days at our
seminar," said Robb. "That seminar was an historic event, because it
was the first inter-racial meeting of black and white lawyers ever
held in the South."
The event's organizers had a lot of trouble pulling it off because
possible host sites, including a major hotel and Morehouse College,
kept turning them down. At that time, segregation ruled in the south.
"Public buildings even had signs labeling drinking fountains with
'White' and 'Colored,'" said Robb.
They finally were able to find a place to rent, and the seminar was
held. "The most exciting event was the closing dinner," said Robb.
"Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came straight from the Birmingham
jail where he had been held to welcome and encourage us, and to urge
us on in our efforts to supply lawyers for the Movement."
As a result, National Lawyers Guild formed the Committee to Assist
Southern Lawyers, and about 200 Michigan lawyers helped out by taking
on southern civil rights cases.
In 1965, on the final day of the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march
for voting rights, civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was shot and
killed; she was the only white woman murdered during the Civil Rights Movement.
The book "From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo"
(Mary Stanton, 1998), and a documentary film, "Home of the Brave"
(2004), portray the tragic event. Robb served as co-counsel and lead
trial counsel against the FBI for her murder.
In the late '70s, Robb worked on behalf of battered women; the
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, traveling to Washington D.C. to urge the establishment of a
"protected class" for them.
The root of inequality
"It seems to me that much of the poor treatment accorded to people
seen as different is based on insecurity and feelings of inadequacy,"
said Robb. "People who do such things need to find someone to pick on
we see it in bullying in schools, in politics, in the attempt to
keep gay and lesbian citizens from having equal rights and
protections; there's this need to feel superior to someone else. Many
times there's also an economic reason greed and exploitation are at
the root of the inequality between men and women."
Robb is still active as an attorney, although at a slower pace that
leaves more time for fly-fishing, golfing, "fooling around on the
farm," and portraying Mark Twain in a one-person show.
He is also active in local legal, mental health, and environmental
protection organizations. Together with his youngest son, Matthew, he
is writing a book about his life.
"I'm trying to explain what shaped my willingness to stick my neck
out for minorities," he said. "I've been very lucky. I've had breaks
and education. If I don't do it, how can I expect others to? I've
tried to set an example of concern for the civil and human rights of
our people, and I talk to and lead discussions with high school
students about the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
"I hope to encourage others to practice a life free of prejudice."
A Lifetime of Achievement
Dean A. Robb was nominated as a candidate for the Michigan Supreme
Court by the Michigan Democratic Party in 1986, coming in third in a
field of more than 23 nominees from across the state.
He was appointed to the selection committee for Western District
Federal Judges under former president Jimmy Carter, and served on the
selection committee for U.S. Attorney in former president Bill
Robb is the founder and a past president 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.
He has served as a governor of the Sixth Circuit of the American
Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA); president of the Michigan Trial
Lawyers Association; co-chair for the ATLA National Committee on
Civil Rights; chair of the ATLA Railroad Law Section; chair of the
Detroit Bar Association's Negligence Law Committee, and is a lifetime
member of the NAACP.
Robb has practiced law in Leelanau County and Traverse City since
1971, and is a founding member of the Northwestern Michigan Chapter
of the ACLU. He has received numerous awards and honors, including:
Champion of Justice (MTLA 1998); Champion of Justice (State Bar of
Michigan, 1994); Outstanding Lawyer Alumni of Wayne State University
(1975); and Outstanding Achievement Award (State Bar of Michigan,
Negligence Section, 2009).
He is a member of many local and national organizations, has written
or co-authored a number of law-related publications, and has been
listed numerous times in "Best Lawyers in America" and "Who's Who in
Former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, in his address to the 1988
National Lawyers Guild event honoring Robb, thanked him for his years
of service, saying, "You have devoted your entire adult life to
fighting for the oppressed members of our society and to furthering
the cause of equal opportunity and equal justice. Your career
exemplifies what the legal profession should be about. Detroit and
Michigan are much better off because you chose to adopt us as your
home. I salute you."