Unbroken Circle: Attorney continues legal legacy of his famous activist father


by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Attorney Matthew Robb had several reasons for entering the law – not least of which was continuing the legacy of his father Dean Robb, a famed civil rights lawyer who was a member of the first interracial law firm in Michigan during the McCarthy Era and Civil Rights Movement.

“My dad is one of my heroes and my best friend,” Matt Robb says. “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.

“My dad found success and happiness by taking on causes and people that he believed in,” he adds. “Dad taught me that law can be a vehicle through which to bring the causes of the people to the doorsteps of the powerful. My dad is known as a civil rights attorney, and rightfully so, but a better title for him would be a people’s lawyer.  The legal theory didn’t matter as much to him as taking up a cause on behalf of a fellow human being. My dad inspired me to believe in people and stop at nothing to help.”

Dean Robb turned 94 on Feb. 26 of this year.

After graduating with honors from Michigan State University’s James Madison College, Robb wrote a biography about his famous father. Winner of the 2011 National Indie Excellence Award for Historical Biography, An Unlikely Radical, tells the story of the young farm boy from southern Illinois whose life led him to become a radical lawyer in Detroit amidst the confrontations and controversies that surrounded civil rights and the Vietnam War in the 1950s-60s.

The four months Robb spent writing the book with his father were transformative, he says.  “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 says. “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.

“Through the book, I came to realize that people are not born a blank slate,” he adds. “We’re all part of a continuing history that spans generations. It’s up to us to ensure the circle goes unbroken.”

That circle continued when Robb headed to Wayne Law School in 2013.

“I believe everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a dream worth pursuing,” he says. “I wanted to help clients navigate some of the most difficult barriers that exist in our society, and I think lawyers have an important role to play in upholding and advancing fairness, integrity, and trust.” 

Interested in youth outreach, Robb joined Keith Students for Civil Rights and developed a Detroit Youth Symposium to bring a project-based approach to the youth outreach programming. The Symposium brought 21 Wayne Law students to Cody High School in Detroit—where Robb had previously taught in the Teach For America Corps—to help students develop presentations about the Motor City.

“It was a meaningful opportunity for law students to develop relationships with young people in Detroit, and it gave the Cody students the academic support and a platform to think critically about Detroit history and the challenges facing their own community,” he says. 

“That time at Cody High School may have been just as transformative for the law students as for the high school students because so many of the law students grew up in very privileged communities. At the symposium, the Cody students were able to elevate their voices and be heard by professors, law students, business leaders, and politicians. For many of my former students, the first step to getting a great education was developing a basic belief that society has a place for them and their voice and story has inherent power.”

Robb notes that Wayne Law prepared him well for the rigors of the Sixth Circuit clerkship he started in 2016 and where he relished analyzing high-level legal issues and the intellectual challenges of supporting the work of Judge Damon J. Keith.

“Clerking for Judge Keith is the greatest honor of my life—to have the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with my hero is a dream come true. Every day walking into these hallowed chambers, I have to pinch myself just so I know it’s real,” he said.

“Judge Keith was born of a world that denied him equal citizenship under law, even though he proved very early that he was a citizen-leader of the highest order. In the face of prejudice, doubt, and denial, he had the courage to be stubbornly true to himself and demand the dignity and respect he deserves. Judge Keith has taught me so much—not just about how to practice law, but how to be a good man and a good citizen. I’m eternally grateful for everything he has done for me, and I want to spend my career advancing his legacy of Equal Justice under Law.”   

A native of Suttons Bay on the Leelanau peninsula, Robb now makes his home on Historic Atkinson Street in Detroit with wife Angelina and newborn daughter Melina Kay.

“My wife and I are committed citizens of Detroit, and we intend to raise our family here,” he says. “    

“The people of Detroit are down-to-earth, resilient, and innately hopeful,” he adds.  “Detroiters have none of the pretensions you might find in other cities, and we’ve found this a very welcoming place, even though we were born on the other side of the state.  As new residents, we’ve loved learning about the city, its history, and its traditions, and we’ve discovered a great lifestyle and great friends. Detroit is a place where you , can make a difference.”

Robb himself made a difference as a 2017 Fellow on the New Leaders Council Detroit.  “I was honored to be accepted to the council because now more than ever we need young people stepping up and taking positions of influence in our society,” he says.  “Our civic dialogue is so cynical that it feels as if we’ve lost all aspiration to move forward—like we’re just digging in and fighting change because we’re afraid...

“New Leaders Council is a place for cultivating skills and developing fresh ideas for how we can embrace our future and help overcome the very new challenges facing this generation.”
Update: Since this was written (May 2017), Robb has taken a position as Finance Director in the Pat Miles for Attorney General campaign. He comments: “2018 is such an important year to be engaged in trying to rebuild our own faith in humanity--whether that is through law, politics, charity, faith, or activism. This is such a pivotal moment for our society, and I hope we all take the time to look one another in the eyes and try to see the best of ourselves in others. That's a legacy we can build on.”


Subscribe to the Legal News!
Full access to public notices, articles, columns, archives, statistics, calendar and more
Day Pass Only $4.95!
One-County $80/year
Three-County & Full Pass also available