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Steve Quick: This is Steve Quick. Welcome to GAL Radio. Today, we’ll continue our conversation with Dean Robb, subject of a new book called, “Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical.” Dean, you spent over a half-century fighting racism, do you see the hot button topics today – the healthcare, the housing crisis, the environment, immigration – as being part of that larger battle?
Dean Robb: Yeah, it’s not easy to see that directly. I think racism is one of the many dividing issues that keep people apart. It keeps people from being good neighbors. It keeps the white people thinking about being white and the blacks being black and Jews being Jews and Muslims being Muslims. Religion and racism and those things divide us rather than pull us together, which we need.
Steve Quick: What was it that led you to law school and to becoming a lawyer?
Dean Robb: That’s a good story because I started at the University of Illinois – listen to this – with a hundred dollars. We went up there – my cousin and I hitchhiked 180 miles from southern Illinois up to Urbana-Champaign – got a room for $10 a month, so we paid $20 for a room in rooming house and we both meal jobs in a fraternity, so we worked for our meals and literally, I went all the way through college first with that start, and then when I got out of the Navy, I had the G.I. Bill. So, my entire education was paid for by either low cost tuition and working, plus, after the war, getting tuition and books and so forth paid by the G.I. Bill, so, I wish this could happen for all of our young people today. I mean, now, college is out of sight for some many people and that’s something we really need to work on.
Steve Quick: So after the war, you went back to college and eventually ended up in Detroit. Can you tell us how that happened?
Dean Robb: There was a strike by the General Motors Auto Workers in Detroit led by a young labor leader name Walter Reuther, and in the law school, we had this almost immediate division and most of the law students were for GM, and I, and another guy or two, was for the strikers because we thought they had been cheated; they had been on a wage freeze all during World War II, and while General Motors was getting fat and making millions. So, that sort of dulled me little bit by thinking I don’t want to be with these guys, so, I went to a religious emphasis week in the University of Illinois and I met two people which really changed my life. One was a Presbyterian minister named Henry Jones, and the other was a Michigan State Senator named Stanley Novak. And they were down at the university talking about the labor movement in Detroit as being a form of - They were saying that organizing the unions was what Jesus would be doing - it was sort of a social work kind of thing, it was social action. And I was struck by both of these men and then Henry Jones invited me to come to Detroit for the summer to work in the Dodge Community House, in Hamtramck, Michigan, as a… I was going to be an intern there and maybe go on to be a minister. So, I went there and got involved with a lot of activities in Detroit and that’s what sent me back to law school at Wayne University and that was part of my liberal or progressive education, as I guess I call it, and that’s what got me into being a labor lawyer and being a activist, I guess you’d call, a social activist or some word like that, I don’t like that word too well though.
Steve Quick: I am wondering if you could read a short passage from your book, starting on page 132. It describes a little bit about your early law career.
Dean Robb: Ok. I took up a case for a guy named Joe. He was a tiny, frail, Hungarian man in his 50’s. He had worked at Cadillac for many years as a sweeper; all day long he would sweep the floors. When he walked passed someone, he would look up, smile and say hello. One day, as he was sweeping along the factory floor, a Hilo truck came streaking across – and the driver must have not seen Joe sweeping – and he ran right into him, crushing both of his legs and throwing his body out of whack. When he recovered from his multiple leg fractures, he went back to work, even though he still had a lot of pain in his back. He went to the factory nurse to ask for help with his pain and got no help, so he went to chiropractor. The services cost about $350 over several months. When he took the bill back to the factory, they refused to pay it because they hadn’t authorized outside medical help, without a specific request from Joe, they wouldn’t be liable. Imagine little Joe v. Cadillac Motor Company over a small medical bill. He talked to his union, UAW Local 22 and they called me. I agreed to file a case against Cadillac for Joe as a workman’s comp case. In preparation for court, I spent a lot of time coaching Joe who spoke English poorly, I told him that to win the case, he needed to tell the judge that he had demanded chiropractic help before going to get treated on his own, this was probably a fuzzy fact, but necessary to get Joe some basic justice. So, we worked on it for a long time. Joe recited it to me, “I went to the nurse and asked for permission to go to the chiropractor and I thought she said OK.” Good Joe, say it again. This was called the lecture. You tell the client what the law requires and the client then in his own words describes how he followed the legal protocol. He had it down. We had it down, or at least I thought. The moment came. I called Joe to the stand, I felt good about getting a fair shake because the judge an Afro-American named Joe Craigen knew me well as a young lawyer who was helping George Crockett, one of his good friends. When Joe approached the bench, Judge Craigen asked, “Did you ask permission to go for outside medical help?” Joe stammered a little and said, as clear as day, “no.” I was shocked. We had worked it out. It was vital to the case that the answer had to be yes, and Joe, whether out of language confrontation or humble honesty, totally screwed the case. Judge Craigen asked him again for clarification and the answer again was no. Joe had failed his test. Cadillac had no obligation to pay this wimpy bill. My case was dead. Judge Craigen looked up at me with a look that suggested why are you here wasting my time. He told me to proceed with my case knowing that my entire case rested on the answer yes, I paused. I looked up. Nothing. I looked down. Nothing. So, big tears starting rolling up in my eyes and rolling down my cheeks. I looked up again. The judge said, Mr. Robb, proceed. I just kept crying saying nothing. After about a minute of watching a grown man cry. Judge Craigen jerked his head over to the smiling General Motor’s lawyers, who had, by any standard, won the case and shouted, why don’t you pay this bill, and they did. Joe got a couple hundred bucks from Cadillac to pay his medical bills. When all else fails, cry.
Steve Quick: That’s nice.
Dean Robb: That’s one of the funny little stories.
Steve Quick: That’s a great story. The book is called, Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical. The book was written by your son Matthew but it speaks in your voice. Can you describe the process of writing the book?
Dean Robb: Yeah. Matt had just graduated from Michigan State and I picked him up in Lansing and we’d gone south for…we had a home in Florida for the winter and I picked Matt up and so, we had sort of talked about writing up my memoirs or biography and, so what we did, we went through some of the towns that I had done civil rights work in the south in the 60’s and we ended up in Florida and I started and Matt sat at the computer every morning and I would tell him these, kind of chronologically, from my early life clear through until I moved up to Sutton’s Bay in 1971. So, we went from 1924 to 1971 in about 4 months of storytelling and re-writing and arguing about. You know my memory on some of these things wasn’t perfect -so, I had to do the best I could to remember these different stories about starting a career, starting a family, learning how to be a good lawyer and how to share and all those things that turned it into a good story, I think, because it spanned this whole interesting period of the depression, World War II, then the McCarthy Period when the world was worrying about nuclear weapons and were worried about the Soviet Union and communism became our big enemy and I ended up in a law firm where we were ended up legally defending communist, so it was quite a trip that I went on and people have been saying, you got to put this down, you got to put this story together. And so, Matt did it and the good thing about working with your son was it was also an introduction. Boxes of stuff he didn’t know about me we dug out when we did this book. It was fun. And we’d argue sometimes and we wouldn’t agree on the way he was saying it but the amazing thing is he did write it as if I’m talking, as you could see when you looked at it, did you sense that?
Steve Quick: Absolutely. It certainly speaks in your voice. When you finished law school, you and your partners started a law firm it was the first integrated law firm in the United States, is that right?
Dean Robb: That’s right. That was amazing when you think about it. I graduated in 1949 from Wayne State Law School and I was asked by this law firm, that was a labor law firm, if I would want to be an associate, a young lawyer in that firm and I did because they were the, kind of, the number one law firm that was pioneers in the labor movement and I was attracted to that and so they offered me a job and after one year, we formed a partnership with Goodman, Crockett, Eden and Robb and I was the young wasp and Crockett is black Afro-American born in Florida, educated at Atlantic, Georgia at Morehouse College and then he went to the University of Michigan Law School and he worked for the government during World War II, and Goodman was a young Jewish lawyer that had grown up in a poor Jewish family and then Eden was also Jewish so I had two Jews, a black and a wasp; a Presbyterian republican, what a combination, huh?
Steve Quick: Yeah, the first time it had ever been seen, I guess.
Dean Robb: Yeah, and it was very, very educational for me because we had to worry about where you could go to eat lunch, because in Detroit was segregated in some respects almost as bad as the south in the 40’s and 50’s. So, I became really conscious of what blacks go through.
Steve Quick: Where you became very involved in the civil rights movement and in fact, you were in the crowd on the Mall in Washington, DC and witnessed Martin Luther King deliver his “I have a dream” speech.
Dean Robb: Yeah, that was great. I was right down in front of him, not very far. And I was, you know, I don’t know how many people were there, there was all kinds of estimates, a lot of people thought there was at least a half a million people in the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and it was thrilling.
Steve Quick: Well, what goes through your mind when you see news reports today of large crowds gathered there for events by the Tea Party or even John Stewart?
Dean Robb: Well, I think it’s OK. I favor free speech and I favor letting everyone have their say. I don’t think any of us own that space, we all own it, so it’s OK for the Tea Party or whoever else that can organize a crowd to be heard. As long as we can keep open the other side so there’s at least a debate and hopefully truth comes out of the matching and conflicting ideas about what’s right and wrong. I think the truth can be found pretty easily. It’s like a jury trial. I mean, it’s the same kind of process of hearing both sides and if it’s conducted fairly, most of the time we feel we get pretty good results. Twelve people, even though they’re mixed up in education and background and everything else, they come out with a lot of smarts when you figure it out. So, I really believe in the jury system. I think that’s one of the great institutions of our society.
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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