Friends and colleagues describe him as focused, fearless, and brilliant.
Robert E. Robinson or “Robbie” as he was affectionately called, was considered one of Savannah’s rising stars.
An attorney, judge pro-tem, and city councilman- He had a vision and a passion to pursue what was fair and what was right – to fight for justice and equality.
Savannah’s Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Musem Executive Director Vaughnette Goode-Walker says, as a teenager in the 1960’s, Robinson immersed himself in the struggle for civil rights-battling Jim Crow laws in the segregated south.
Under the leadership of W.W. Law, he took part in the effort to integrate Tybee Beach.
“It was very dangerous work, if you will,” Walker says, “For those who went out to Tybee Beach or Savannah Beach as it was at that time.”
Former Savannah Mayor Edna Branch Jackson he proved to be a foot soldier early on.
“Mr. Law made a habit of telling us who we were, where we came from and why it was important for us to effect change,” Jackson says. “So, Robbie was one of the young people who really took it to heart and he believed in what he was doing and that’s why he became one of the leaders. He spoke up and spoke out.”
By 1963, he and 19 others would lead the charge in desegregating Savannah’s public schools.
There would be other ‘firsts’ to follow. He went on to become a lawyer… and in 1975, he joined the city’s first integrated law firm- eventually opening his own office in 1981.
It’s no surprise politics would soon follow.
“Robert began to get name recognition in the community during the school desegregation days,” says Robinson’s longtime friend, former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson. “Then in 1983, Robert and Floyd and I ran as an insurgent group against the Rousakis slate. All three of us were elected and we began to change the priorities of the Rousakis administration.”
Robbie became the first African American to represent Savannah’s 5th district.
Subsequently winning a second term in 1986. Under his leadership, he brought about change– like paved roads, drainage, and the first stop light in Liberty City.
But Robinson knew there was still more work to be done. Through the years, he maintained his relationship with the NAACP. He was a member of the executive board and served as general counsel. It was those ties that, some believe, made him a target.
On December 18, 1989, Robinson was killed when a mail bomb exploded at his Abercorn Street office. A sudden and senseless crime at the hands of Walter Leroy Moody.
“In my recollections of that night, Robbie dropped me off at my parents and we had a meeting at St. Paul,” his widow Ann Robinson says. “It was an NAACP meeting as I can recall. I got a call from the office and they said it’s been an accident- you need to get to Memorial Hospital. Finally, I got to see him, but I really didn’t know what happened until the next day.”
In his old neighborhood, a park now bears Robinson’s name. It’s where Ann says she finds solace. She says she may never know the reason why her husband lost his life to such a heinous crime but she harbors no ill feelings towards Moody. Instead, she’s focused on keeping his memory alive.
“A great civic leader was taken from Savannah. If he was living now, I have no idea whatsoever what he would be into because he was just a busy, happy go lucky fellow.”
Around Savannah, there are other reminders of Robinson’s life- city leaders named a parking garage and apartment homes in his honor. There’s also the Robbie Robinson Scholarship for students who plan to attend Paine College, the University of Georgia or Savannah State University.
As for Walter Leroy Moody, he was convicted in federal court in June 1991 of 70 offenses, including murder in the mail bomb death of 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert S. Vance. He was sentenced to serve consecutive life terms without parole.
He was later convicted in an Alabama circuit court in Birmingham in the deaths of Vance and Robinson and sentenced to death in February 1997.
At 81, he’s now the oldest inmate on Alabama’s death row.