Legendary civil rights lawyer Dean Robb dies

Dean Robb (middle) with Secretary of State-Elect Jocelyn Benson in 2014.

Dean Robb, the Michigan attorney who filed suit against the FBI after civil rights activists were murdered by Ku Klux Klan members in the 1960s, died on Sunday at age 94.

The Traverse City resident earned a law degree from Wayne State University in 1949. Robb made history, both as an activist and as an attorney who represented those he believed had been violated by the system.

“I was born in 1924 in southern Illinois, out in the country,” Robb told the Leelanau Enterprise newspaper several years ago.

Armed with that law degree, Robb, along with Ernest Goodman; George Crockett, an African American; Morton Eden; and Maurice Sugar, founded the firm Goodman, Crockett, Eden and Robb in Detroit. It holds the distinction of being the first interracial law firm in the nation.

Robb toiled as an activist during the civil rights movement. He is best known for filing a civil lawsuit against the FBI on behalf Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit white woman who was murdered in 1965 in Alabama by Ku Klux Klan members after she participated in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Her effort helped to compel U.S. Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“He was like a father to us,” said Mary Liuzzo Lilliboe, one of Viola Liuzzo’s daughters. “We loved him.”

When there was a shortage of lawyers to defend victims of racial discrimination and racially based attacks in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, Robb and others suggested sending volunteer lawyers to help. In 1963, the Detroit chapter of the National Lawyers Guild organized a seminar in Atlanta, Ga. As a result, the guild sent about 200 Michigan lawyers to assist.

Robb ran unsuccessfully for Michigan Supreme Court in 1986. He also founded Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a national organization that works pro bono on cases involving civil rights and liberties, consumer and victim’s rights, the rights of workers, environmental protection and safety, rights of poor defendants and the civil justice system.

Mark Brewer

He was the subject of a 2010 biography, “Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical,” by his son, attorney Matthew Z. Robb. Former Michigan first lady Helen Milliken, who was married to Gov. William Milliken, called the book “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.”

“Dean, in so many ways, was an inspirational figure to many of us not just as a lawyer but also as a progressive activist,” said Mark Brewer, an attorney and former Michigan Democratic Party chair who worked on Robb’s 1986 Supreme Court campaign. “He walked the walk, not just talked the talk.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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