Civil rights attorney hands torch to younger generation

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 Civil rights attorney Dean Robb took part in a march in Meridian, Miss., in memory of civil rights activists – James Earl “J.E.” Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner– murdered during “Freedom Summer” by members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

By Sheila Pursglove 
Legal News

At 89, civil rights attorney and activist Dean Robb is still passionate about the freedom movement of the 1960s, and enjoys sharing his stories of those turbulent times with today’s youth.

Robb, who was heavily involved in the early days of the civil rights movement, was a chaperone and leader on June’s Freedom Tour of the Deep South, a two-week trip for 34 Detroit-area teens led by attorney Cary McGehee, chair of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights. The group visited many landmarks in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi with strong connections to the civil rights movement. 

“It was déjà vu, repeating history,” says Robb, who took his son Matt on a similar trip a few years ago. “I had been to all those sites in the ‘60s, except for southwest Georgia. Every day on this tour was packed, we visited famous sites, and met people who had been involved in the ‘60s civil rights movement, and who are still active in carrying on this legacy.”

Robb, who lives in Suttons Bay on the Leelanau Peninsula near Traverse City, will relive the tour in November, when the local League of Women Voters will hold a special meeting. 

“Six of the teens from the Freedom Tour will say what it meant to them, what they learned, and how it changed their lives,” Robb says.

In the 1960s, Robb – a founding partner long with Ernest Goodman, Morton Eden, and George Crockett Jr. of Goodman, Crockett, Eden & Robb in Detroit, the first inter-racial law firm in the country – was busy finding northern lawyers to take cases in the south, to assist southern attorneys. 

“I was the man on the ground,” he says. “I knew a lot of trial lawyers and got many of them to agree to help.”

This led to him organizing the Atlanta Conference in 1963, serving as chair and emcee of this first inter-racial meeting of attorneys to discuss strategies for the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the guest speaker, but had just been released from jail in Birmingham following a protest march. 

“All week I was struggling and worrying about whether he would get to the meeting,” Robb says.  “We all wanted to meet him and ally with him.”

Thankfully, King was able to attend. 

“I had expected him to be a very large man, a giant, because he had that beautiful, booming voice,” Robb says. “In fact, he was quite a bit smaller than I am, and I’m 5’9”. 

“But his presence was electrifying, he had a manner about him that attracted people, and you felt you were in the presence of someone special. He gave a rousing speech, saying he was proud of white lawyers coming to assist the very few southern black lawyers.”

Robb got involved in the famous case of Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit civil rights activist shot and killed on March 25, 1965, the final day of the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Charles Morgan, head of the ACLU in the south, directed the Liuzzo family to Robb, who met with them in northwest Detroit. 

“I agreed to be their lawyer, and it was a thrilling moment,” he says.

He served as co-counsel and lead trial counsel in Liuzzo v United States of America, against the FBI for the Liuzzo family. The lawsuit claimed an FBI informant and employee of the FBI, who was in the car with the Ku Klux Klan members when they killed Liuzzo, had failed to prevent Liuzzo’s death and had, in effect, conspired in the murder. 

It was something of a David vs. Goliath case. 

“Here we were in a federal court, suing the government – the FBI – before a federal judge,” Robb says. “The judge wanted to get a higher position, for which he needed FBI approval, and here he was making a decision about the FBI.”

When the Freedom Tour visited the Liuzzo Memorial along a highway in Alabama, it was an emotional moment for Robb, who shared the story with the teens on the bus tour. 

“It’s a sad story,” he says. “Her family thought the FBI would be quick to solve her murder by the Klan group, but the more we dug into it, it turned out the Klan killer was an FBI undercover agent. With a lot of hard work, we uncovered a lot of bad things. We didn’t win, but we uncovered a lot of dirty tricks.”

It was just one of many fascinating cases for the farm boy from in Pinckneyville, Ill., who earned his undergrad degree from the University of Illinois in 1946 – with his studies interrupted by two years service in the U.S. Navy during World War II – and his J.D. from Wayne State University in 1949.

“When I first came to Detroit, I was working as a social worker at a Community Center in Hamtramck near the Dodge plant,” he says. “I got really interested in the UAW and organized labor, and decided to become a labor lawyer, rather than a minister.”

Several famous people became his clients, including State Senator Stanley Nowak; Rev. Charles Hill; many UAW members; and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who married Robb’s secretary; in an ironic twist, Robb served as her attorney during divorce proceedings. 

Goodman, Crockett, Eden & Robb was modeled on the work of radical labor lawyer, Maurice Sugar, a 1913 University of Michigan grad and General Counsel of the United Auto Workers Union from 1937-46. Robb met him in 1947. 

“He had retired, and the remnants of his old firm became the basis of our firm,” he says. The Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center in Detroit continues Sugar’s work. “I’m very proud of that group,” Robb says.

Robb’s awards and honors are numerous, including Champion of Justice awards from both the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association and the State Bar of Michigan; Outstanding Lawyer Alumni of Wayne State University.

Robb and his wife, Cindy Mathias, are the proud parents of Laura, Ben and Matthew. The latter wrote a book, “Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical,” covering his father’s extraordinary life and career through 1971.

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