Robinson was born in Richmond on July 26, 1916, to Spottswood William Robinson Jr., a lawyer and real estate entrepreneur, and Inez Clements Robinson, a homemaker educated at Howard University. He had two younger sisters. Robinson’s grandfather, Spottswood William Robinson, was an enslaved man who, according to family lore, walked away from his owner’s farm in Spotsylvania County and became part of Richmond’s substantial prewar, free black population. Following emancipation, the elder Robinson opened a liquor store and bar at 19–21 North Eighteenth Street in Richmond, later converting it to a grocery store.
After graduating from Armstrong High School in June 1932, Robinson III entered Virginia Union University. When his father suffered a serious gallbladder attack at the start of his junior year, Robinson—then just eighteen—dropped out of school and took over the running of the family real estate business. He returned a year later but left without completing a degree to enter Howard University School of Law in the autumn of 1936.
On May 5, 1936, he married Marian Bernice Wilkerson at Saint Vincent de Paul, a Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. After a rocky academic start at Howard Law, Robinson rebounded, graduating in June 1939 with a grade-point average that went unsurpassed until 2010. While continuing to reside in Richmond, Robinson accepted a teaching fellowship at Howard later that year, advancing to instructor in 1941, assistant professor in 1943, and associate professor in 1946.
Early Law Practice
During the 1940s Robinson also became part of a thriving civil rights and general law practice in Richmond with partners Oliver W. Hill and Martin A. Martin. Stymied by a nervousness that seemed inexplicable given his stellar law school record, Robinson had delayed taking the Virginia bar exam. In June 1943, however, prompted by Hill’s pending induction into the U.S. Army, Robinson passed the bar and assumed leadership of the Hill law firm, taking over many of the older attorney’s duties as head of the legal staff of the Virginia State Conference of Branches of the NAACP. By the end of World War II (1939–1945), the firm had been established as Hill, Martin, and Robinson. The partnership lasted until 1955.
On June 3 the Supreme Court, with one dissenter, struck down the Virginia statute as it related to interstate travel. In a press release issued by the NAACP’s New York office, a jubilant Marshall proclaimed the victory “one of the most momentous decisions in the history of the country.” Within weeks, a more sober interpretation took hold as civil rights attorneys realized the limitations of the ruling. State statutes were invalidated, but nothing prevented private carriers from enforcing their own segregated seating requirements. Nonetheless, over time, Morgan v. Virginia proved to be a crucial victory on the path to desegregated seating. It signaled a growing willingness by the Supreme Court to elevate minority rights. It also prompted an early instance of collective, nonviolent protest, as a group of young men traveling in interracial pairs fanned out across the Upper South in the spring of 1947 to test the ruling. The work of those activists, including Bayard Rustin, became a model for the more widely remembered Freedom Riders of the early 1960s. Finally, the decision provided an important precedent in subsequent transportation cases, including Chance v. Lambeth. That far-reaching Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling held that private railway policies requiring black passengers to change seats when they crossed state lines created an undue burden under the Commerce Clause. Hill and Martin argued the case in court with Robinson assisting on the brief.
In other legal matters, Robinson became recognized as one of the LDF’s leading experts on restrictive covenants in housing. Soon after Robinson had graduated from Howard Law, noted civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston tapped him to assist in a legal assault on such exclusionary practices in Washington, D.C. When the Supreme Court agreed to hear three related cases in the autumn of 1947, Robinson—who specialized in property law—was deeply involved in preparing the pleadings. Working with Houston on Hurd v. Hodge, a Washington-based case, he helped amass scores of articles, reports, and books to underscore the sociological and economic damage imposed by forced housing segregation. Robinson also was among a handful of attorneys preparing the appeal in McGhee v. Sipes, a Detroit case that was the only one of three to be handled solely by the LDF. Supreme Court rulings in the cases on May 3, 1948, banned enforcement of restrictive covenants by both state and federal courts.
School Equalization Campaign and Brown v. Board
In mid-1947 Robinson made a significant professional change, based on his mounting determination to help eradicate disparities in education for black and white children. At Marshall’s urging, he elected to take a leave of absence from Howard Law and devote himself almost full-time to what Marshall in an NAACP press release called “a full-scale legal attack on the inequalities in education in the State of Virginia.” Over the previous year, Robinson and his law partners already had filed a series of lawsuits demanding that the federal courts put an end to educational disparity in several Virginia localities, including King George, Gloucester, Pulaski, and Arlington Counties. Embarking on the new assignment with W. Lester Banks, executive secretary of the Virginia State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, Robinson crisscrossed the state investigating inequities in school facilities, transportation, and course offerings. He and other NAACP attorneys then initiated legal actions based on the findings. Preparing to be a star witness on education strategy at a national gathering of lawyers called by Marshall in June 1948, Robinson reported that he was involved with about sixty school cases in Virginia. Ultimately, those actions became an important underpinning for the LDF’s historic decision in June 1950 to make a full-bore push for desegregation of public schools. Frustrated by the delaying tactics and, at times, outright defiance of court equalization orders by white school officials in Virginia, Robinson was among those urging the tactical switch. “I just took the position that I wasn’t going to get involved in any more equalization cases; it was going to be segregation head on,” Robinson recalled in a 1989 interview. Later in 1950, Robinson was named southeastern regional counsel for the LDF.
When LDF lawyers descended on Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1951 to argue the first of the school desegregation cases, Briggs v. Elliott, Robinson was among the group. He played only a minor role in the courtroom arguments, but his presence appeared to bolster Marshall’s confidence. Describing the relationship of the two men in the book Simple Justice, an account of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, author Richard Kluger deemed Robinson as Marshall’s “most valuable all-around associate.” He attributed the strength of the relationship to Robinson’s “balanced judgment, scrupulous care, clarity of expression, and remarkable recall.”
Robinson played a far more substantial role in another of thelawsuits that would eventually be combined into the Brown case: Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. That case began with a student walkout at the Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville on April 23, 1951. Led by sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns, the demonstrators protested overcrowding and inferior conditions at the all-black school. Initially, Robinson and Hill were skeptical of embarking on a legal challenge to segregated schools in the small, rural county, but they agreed to meet with the students while passing through Farmville on their way to Pulaski County. The attorneys came away from that meeting so impressed with the determination of the students that they agreed to take the case, as long as the group’s parents backed not just a bid for an improved black school building but full desegregation of public education in the county. After securing that agreement, Robinson filed the Davis case on behalf of the Hill, Martin, and Robinson firm in federal district court in Richmond on May 23. Later that day, he joined Marshall and other NAACP activists on a train heading for South Carolina, where the Briggs trial would begin a few days later. When the Davis case reached trial stage the following February, Robinson and Hill joined LDF attorney Robert L. Carter in representing the students before a three-judge panel.
After months of preparation, Robinson left that hearing exhausted. Many years later in a questionnaire related to a judicial nomination, Robinson revealed a little-known fact. “For a period of several weeks in December 1953, and January 1954, I was resting at home in consequence of a chronic fatigue syndrome,” he wrote. In a letter to supporters, Marshall described his concern: “[Robinson] was under terrific pressure and he was in a horrible state in so far as his health was concerned … We cannot allow him to just kill himself.” Robinson’s reward came on May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In a long career, he would have no day of greater vindication.
The jubilation of the black attorneys was not shared by Virginia’s white power structure. Over the next several years, Robinson, Hill, and their colleagues fought against a campaign of massive resistance to school desegregation that led to the closing of nine schools in Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk. By the end of September 1958, about 12,700 students were displaced in the three localities. After back-to-back rulings by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and a three-judge federal panel on January 19, 1959, seventeen black students in Norfolk and four in Arlington entered previously all-white schools two weeks later. Throughout the period, Robinson and his colleagues maintained an exhausting schedule of court appearances as they oversaw scores of legal actions in numerous localities related to school desegregation. The list included Prince Edward County, where white officials resisted the Brown ruling until 1959 and then closed public schools for five years rather than submit to integration. Simultaneously, the attorneys were fighting a rearguard action to protect their own livelihoods. The General Assembly had passed a series of laws and empaneled two commissions with the express purpose of discrediting the NAACP lawyers and, if possible, demolishing the NAACP’s Virginia conference. Legal actions filed by Robinson, Hill, the NAACP, and the LDF eventually thwarted those efforts, but the last of the cases was not decided by the U.S. Supreme Court until January 14, 1963, in NAACP v. Button.
Jurist and Later Years
By 1963, Robinson was no longer engaged in the active practice of law. Three years earlier, Howard University had named him professor of law and dean of the law school. Robinson also had been named to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan panel investigating discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Nominated to that post by President John F. Kennedy, Robinson faced white southern opposition, including from both Virginia senators, Harry F. Byrd and A. Willis Robertson. The pair were on the losing side in a 73–17 confirmation vote. In the autumn of 1963, shortly before his assassination, Kennedy nominated Robinson to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. When Judiciary Committee Chair James O. Eastland of Mississippi refused to take up the nomination, newly installed President Lyndon B. Johnson made a recess appointment of Robinson in January 1964. Six months later, the Senate quietly affirmed his appointment. Two years later, Johnson nominated Robinson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, considered by many to be the nation’s second-most important court. Confirmed, he later served five years as chief judge, making him only the second African American to serve as chief judge of one of the nation’s eleven circuits. On the court, Robinson maintained a reputation for exhaustive research and scrupulous ethics. He held the record for the most footnotes ever in a federal appellate opinion, 676, and by repute refused even to jaywalk.
In September 1989, Robinson took semi-retired status to care for his ailing wife. A woodworker, fisherman, and amateur architect in his spare time, he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at home in Richmond on October 11, 1998. He was survived by his wife and two children, Nina Robinson Govan and Spottswood W. Robinson IV. Robinson received honorary degrees from Howard University, Georgetown University, and the New York Law School. A Richmond courthouse for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, dedicated in 2008, was named for Judge Robinson and former District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr.