Remembering a True American Hero
He was, simply put, perhaps the most complex, fascinating and heroic man I have ever met. He surprised me at my 60th birthday party by coming dressed as Mark Twain, which I couldn’t believe, and wowed the guests by doing a spot-on impersonation of the great writer.
Indeed, by that time, Dean Robb, then a mere boy of 88, looked and sounded more like Mark Twain than Twain probably ever did. The resemblance was uncanny. But while I enjoyed seeing him in character, what went through my mind was this: My God. He’s playing Mark Twain in my house, this man who is himself an authentic American hero.
Dean Robb was a man who went with Claudia Morcom and Martin Luther King Jr. to try and register people to vote in Mississippi when that could get you killed.
He was a man who went to see Fidel Castro in Cuba when Americans weren’t supposed to do that, and years before that had become a partner in the first racially integrated law firm in the nation, Goodman, Crockett, Eden and Robb.
He was a man who was, to quote the title of his son’s biography of him, “An Unlikely Radical,” an Illinois farm boy who came to Detroit to go to Wayne State University law school.
From his youngest days, Dean never could stand anything that smacked of injustice, especially, racial injustice. That didn’t make his life easy back in the day. Dean Robb fought for justice for blacks, though he was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
He fought for justice for Communists, even though he wasn’t a Communist, and in an era when defending Reds made you a traitor in many people’s eyes.
Dean Robb didn’t care. When he graduated, the dean of the law school at Wayne State University told him there was no place in America for radical lawyers.
Dean Robb spent the rest of his life proving him wrong. I first became aware of him in connection with the death of Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman ever killed during the Civil Rights Movement. She was shot to death in Alabama in bullets fired from a car full of Ku Klux Klansmen in March, 1965, as she was helping drive home some of those footsore protestors who had taken part in that epic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
What very few knew, however, was that one of the Klansmen was an FBI informant with a penchant for violence who did nothing to stop the killing. When Dean found out, he sued the federal government on behalf of her five kids, who were left bereft by their mother’s murder.
He failed to win that case. But he went on fighting for the little guy, for the underdog, his whole career, and won his fair share. When his wife left him for his law partner in the early 1970s, he moved up north, to prove he could be both a country boy and a radical big city lawyer.
“Damned if it didn’t work out, too,” he said.
Eventually, Dean married Cindy, the love of his life, and they had a son, Matt, who followed his father into the law. Dean Robb was 94 this year when they told him he needed two heart valves replaced. The doctors did the first one.
Then, the bad news; his heart was too large. We already knew that.
Last week I went to see him in the apartment he was renting in Detroit. He was as feisty as ever, and made a few choice comments about General Motors and Donald Trump.
Two nights ago, Dean Robb left the stage and the courtroom forever. He was a role model in many ways, but what I will always remember is that he kicked butt, never sold out, knew how to love and had a hell of a good time doing the right thing.
And I was lucky enough to know him.