Civil rights activist Dean Robb 'a people’s lawyer'

The Detroit News
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Dean Robb, the Liuzzo family's attorney who sued the FBI after Viola Liuzzo's murder, spoke at a fundraiser for the Viola Liuzzo Park in Detroit in 2015.

Dean Robb blazed a trail as a prominent trial lawyer and civil rights activist with an unwavering commitment to justice.

“He was a people’s lawyer,” said his son, Matthew Robb, who also is an attorney. “He took injustice wherever it was and tried to bring it to the courthouse.”

Mr. Robb died Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Detroit from congestive heart failure, relatives said. He was 94.

The longtime attorney spent decades advocating for others and fighting for change — first earning renown in Detroit and beyond during the civil rights movement.

The former Detroiter was a founding member of what associates said was the first interracial law firm in the country, Goodman, Crockett, Eden & Robb. 

He also recruited and organized lawyers across the country to provide legal support to civil rights demonstrators, and in 1963, helped coordinate a conference in the South, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the keynote speaker, relatives said. 

Mr. Robb also trekked to Virginia to support the legal defense of more than 700 non-violent voting rights demonstrators. 

Later, he represented the family of Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit homemaker slain by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama following the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, in a suit against the FBI.

“By bringing that lawsuit, he restored her reputation,” said his wife, Cindy Robb.

Mr. Robb devoted his life to reshaping perceptions.

Raised on a farm in Illinois, he came to Metro Detroit after serving the Navy in the 1940s with hopes of becoming a Presbyterian minister. But through meeting people advocating on behalf of African-Americans and others, “he noticed that lawyers were on the front lines for equal rights and keeping peace in the world,” his son said. “The law was a vehicle to create social change.”

Mr. Robb eventually earned his law degree from Wayne State University and co-founded the Goodman firm.

By the 1970s, he relocated to the Traverse City area, where he focused on a wide range of cases, including environmental rights and consumer protection, relatives said.

Mr. Robb often worked around the clock and “would help anytime, anywhere that he was,” his wife said. “His personal and professional life were one.”

Mr. Robb was active in numerous legal groups and earned honors, including a Champion of Justice award from the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association, according to a biography.

A lecture series at his alma mater also is named after him.

In recent years, his son chronicled his father’s career in a book, “Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical.”

Mr. Robb’s expertise kept him a go-to for many, even into his 80s, Matthew Robb said. “People would keep calling him for help.”

Other survivors include four other children, Laura, Alan, Blair, Ben; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. 

A celebration of life is planned for Jan. 19 near Traverse City. Another event is planned for this spring at Wayne State Law School in Detroit. 

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