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Steve Quick: Hello, and welcome to GAL Radio. My name is Steve Quick. Dean Robb is a lawyer and long-time champion of civil rights, consumers’ safety, workers rights and using the law as an engine for social change and justice. Over six decades, he has fought for racial equality, against McCarthyism, and helped develop strategies for fighting within the system. Hello, Dean and welcome to the program.
Dean Robb: Thanks, glad to be here.
Steve Quick: It’s an honor to have you join us.
Dean Robb: Thank you.
Steve Quick: So, Dean, how did you become a radical, and why would it be so unlikely for you to become one?
Dean Robb: I came from quite conservative roots. My grandfather was a Republican county commissioner in a little county in the southern Illinois and my family, we just grew up as Presbyterians and conservative Republicans. We were farmers. We farmed about 160 acres, sometimes a little more than that, and that’s the way I grew up. And we grew up in the depression. I was born in 1924 in a little farmhouse without a doctor and no electricity and no indoor plumbing or anything like that. This is my humble upbringing. I don’t want to make too much of that because we were lucky. We had food, and we were warm and all those things. So, I just grew up, like a lot of people, with pretty much following my family footsteps. The only thing that happened to me that, a couple things in the depression that I think helped me kind of line up with the underdog was there was a black family that lived down in the country about a mile and half from our farm, and they were really poor. They had, I don’t know how many children, there were a lot of kids and an older man that was supposedly in his 90’s born in slavery. And he was a neighbor of ours, and his wife would come every week to help my mother with the washing, and mom would always send her home with a couple of cloth sacks full of food and things that she could share with them, and I think that sharing that I saw that my mother did with this black family gave me a little bit of a nudge towards racial equality because the contrast between, we were poor, but they were really poor, and I didn’t know much about discrimination at that point. I didn’t really, I hadn’t heard many of the stories, and as a little kid, this was in, I was born in ‘24, so, I’m talking, really, about the first six years of my life, is what, maybe seven, that I remember this experience with the black family down the road, and I think that helped me, nudged me towards equality. There was also, in the depression, there was homeless men. I don’t know where the women were, but they were called hobos that sort of lived along the railroad tracks in these small towns, many times with tar paper shacks and just shelters built kind of in the railroad siding and I saw some of that and that was sort of, that had a lasting impact on me. What I remember is that these fellas would come by and offer to do some work for food, and what I remember was that my mom always gave them some food and usually they would do some chores around, like get wood or clean up the yard. I don’t remember the chores exactly, but they did something and mom fed them. And I think my mother, like most of us, were greatly influenced by those wonderful women that give us food. So, I think that helped me.
Steve Quick: You started college at the University of Illinois. Were you the first member of your family to go to college?
Dean Robb: No. My dad went to college at the University of Illinois, and he was in the College of Agriculture, and he almost graduated but the crops in 1920, my grandfather gave him this 80 acre farm, so he left the university about six weeks short of graduation and went home, married mom and put in the spring crops. So, he never graduated, but he had almost four years of college. My mother went to a normal school and was a school teacher, and she taught school for seven years before they married. So, I came from relatively a well-educated family.
Steve Quick: Well you started college at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1941, which, as it turns out, was a pretty busy time for our country.
Dean Robb: Yeah, it sure was. Pearl Harbor, which turned, like 9/11, our world upside down with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and I was at the University. We didn’t have television then. We had radio, but the news wasn’t immediately like now but we quickly learned about that. We heard Roosevelt’s speech on declaring war, the day that will live in infamy, that famous speech of his, which we’ve all heard now. And, so, that changed my life. It was called a great war, and I think there was a reason for it because pretty much everyone was for supporting our efforts to defeat the Japanese and then the Germans, so I got involved in that real quick. I joined the Navy, and they left me in school, though, because I guess I was a candidate for the Officer Corp, so I was kept in school and then sent to the University of Pennsylvania to work towards being an officer in the Navy.
Steve Quick: And so the Navy sent you to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania?
Dean Robb: Yeah, of all places they sent me to one of the greatest business schools in the country. I was headed to be a supply officer, and they gave you this business training as a prep for that, but suddenly they needed ensigns to run these landing barges in the South Pacific, so instead of going to Harvard, where I was headed, they sent us to Plattsburgh, New York. It was an old Army base that they converted into a training ground for young Navy recruits, and I was sent there and that’s when I got injured in a crazy exercise. We were training for take-down activities like we were in battle, and I got my shoulder messed up. They sent me to a hospital, and they messed it up even more and I ended up not going into the South Pacific but rather going home. I was kind of humbled by the thing; I was very upset by that. We talk about that in this book.
Steve Quick: In the book you describe during your rehabilitation from your injury, you were witness to some racism in the military during World War II. Can you tell us some more about that?
Dean Robb: Yeah, sure. That had a lasting effect too because in this officer’s hospital we were waited on hand and foot by black orderlies, and they were enlisted men but not officers, but they were assigned to this mansion in the Catskill Mountains outside of New York that was the Harriman Estate that the Navy took over and had this convalescent hospital for Navy officers. In these officers, they had about 20 black men who waited on us. They made our beds; they waited on our tables. It was raw, and these fellows, a lot of them were college graduates from black colleges. So, we got a good taste of the white man’s Navy. I’m sure that affected me in terms of wanting to be opposed to racism. I liked these guys, they were fun. Some of the officers told us that we shouldn’t fraternize with these orderlies because they were of lower rank and, of course, in a hospital, there is no rank, really. So, if you’re a patient, you’re a patient, so we didn’t pay much attention to them. Johnny Lawrence, another midshipman, and I, we’d go visit these guys at night and shoot craps, play cards, talk stories and fraternize, and we thought it was what we should be and what we should do. Anyway, that was a good experience.
Steve Quick: Do you see any parallels between the segregation in the military during World War II and the current policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”?
Dean Robb: It’s very similar, really. Discrimination is discrimination, and the discrimination against gays is similar to the discrimination that went on against blacks. I think that’s a national disgrace. It’s something that we hold on to, but the other educated nations of the world I don’t think pay any attention to that, as far as I know. I know in England and the European countries don’t practice that kind of discrimination, so it’s kind of a blot on our characters as far as I’m concerned. Racism is how people stayed divided; they’re separated and blinded to who is their real enemy. Poor people are blinded continually by television and by propaganda and by lies. We see it all the time. And I’m really opposed to the way our country has been going, this continual war. I guess I feel the real enemy is this greedy capitalism that we developed. We seem to destroy what’s good, and the value of sharing and helping others has been replaced with greed and self-seeking interests that I think is very, very devastating to our moral standing in the world. I’m opposed to it, and I hope that this book speaks to that. I think it does, telling my story.
Steve Quick: We’ve been speaking with Dean Robb, subject of a new book called, “Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical.” We’ll continue our conversation with Dean Robb next time here on GAL Radio. My name is Steve Quick, have a good day.
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