Longtime Judge Dalton Roberson Sr. dies after COVID-19 diagnosis

Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit home of former Judge Dalton Roberson's courtroom | Ken Coleman

In 1937, Wes Johnson, an 18-year-old Black man, was accused of assaulting a white woman and arrested. He was later snatched from a Henry County, Ala., jail by a mob of 100 white men and lynched. Johnson was shot hundreds of times and then left hanging from a tree limb for three days. No one was charged with his death.  

It was not an isolated incident. The Equal Justice Initiative has identified 4,400 victims of lynching in the United States between 1877 and 1950. Today, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors thousands of people killed in racist lynchings.

Dalton Roberson Sr. | Portia Roberson photo

The same year that Johnson was murdered, Dalton Roberson Sr. was born on the other side of the state in Mount Vernon, Ala., to a Black family. 

Roberson, a noted Michigan judge, died Tuesday at age 83. Roberson had recently been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

While it is not clear whether coronavirus was responsible for Roberson’s death, a disproportionate number of Black Michiganders have died from the virus. Blacks make up 14% of the state’s population, but about 38% of coronavirus deaths in Michigan. 

Recognizing that courts far too often are influenced by biases and lack ethnic and racial diversity, Roberson said in 2016 that it is important that they have Blacks as judges and lawyers, both as prosecutors and defense attorneys. 

“That’s an important factor because you look out and say, ‘That could be my brother or my sister. It could be my nephew,’” said Roberson during a law in society symposium held at Wayne State University. “At least recognize them as being that. I think that’s why it is important that we, as lawyers and we as judges, recognize that it is important for Black lawyers and Black judges to be part of our society.” 

After graduating from Mobile Training School in Mobile, Ala., Roberson moved to Detroit to seek work. He served as a boom operator in the U.S. Air Force. After he was honorably discharged, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University. 

Following a stint with the Michigan Department of Social Services, he earned a law degree from what was then known as Detroit College of Law in 1967. That same year, he married Pearl Janet Stephens.  

After law school, he served as an assistant Wayne County prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney before founding a law firm with Robert Harrison and Bernard Friedman. From 1972 until 1974, he served as a member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) and the Sentencing Community Alternative Commission.

Michigan Civil Rights Commission Vice Chair Stacie Clayton | Ken Coleman

“The state has lost an icon of Michigan jurisprudence, and commission members — past and present — are mourning the loss of one of our own. Judge Roberson was a man of deep convictions, whose commitment to justice, fairness and equity guided his actions throughout his remarkable life,” said MCRC Chair Stacie Clayton. “He will be remembered as a mentor to many, generously guiding young lawyers and aspiring leaders, always looking to lift up those who followed after him. His generous spirit and dedication to helping others ensures his reach will extend long past his lifetime and into the future.”

Roberson was appointed to what was then known as Detroit Recorder’s Court by Gov. William Milliken in 1974, replacing Judge John Murphy, who had died in a plane crash. In 1987, Roberson was elected chief judge of the court. During his tenure as chief judge, the court decided high-profile cases such as the Malice Green murder case. 

In 1992, the National Conference of Black Lawyers named him its Judge of the Year.  

After he retired in 1999, he and his wife, Pearl, moved to Diamondhead, Miss., where he indulged his passion for golf. The couple returned to Detroit in 2013. Pearl died in 2018.

In recent years, Roberson served as a visiting judge for the Third Circuit Court. He is survived by his daughter, Portia Roberson, who is a member of the MCRC; son, Dalton Roberson Jr.; and daughter-in-law, Jakeema. 

“He was so committed to our judicial system that, once he retired, he continued to serve as a visiting judge for the Third Circuit,” said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. “I have admired Judge Roberson throughout my entire career. His death is a loss to his family, to his friends and to all of us who have looked up to him.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil 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.