Civil rights leader Ira Robinson dies at 85

Civil rights leader Ira Robinson dies at 85
MacArthur Myers, former Mayor Bill Euille and Ira Robinson inside city hall. (Photo/MacArthur Myers)

By Thompson Eskew

Ira L. Robinson, a civil rights advocate, attorney and Alexandria’s first African American City Council member since Reconstruction, died April 19 at his home in Temecula, Calif. He was 85.

Robinson was elected to Alexandria’s City Council on June 9, 1970. Although he only served one term on Council, Robinson championed social change in Alexandria during his three years, primarily focusing on the city’s housing, education system and law enforcement, according to a City of Alexandria news release.

Robinson also worked closely with iconic city manager Vola Lawson to affect change in the city, according to Nancy LaValle Perkins, former director of the Alexandria United Way.

One of his greatest accomplishments was helping enact the 1971 secondary school integration plan, in which Alexandria’s public school system complied with the federal desegregation law, the city’s release noted.

Coming into office at a time of civil unrest in the city following the shooting and death of local African American teenager, Robin Gibson – and just two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Ph.D – many at the time viewed Robinson’s election as a sign of hope.

Robinson also maintained close friendships with those he knew well from his time as a City Councilman and before.

“Ira and I had communicated and kept our friendship alive for over 50 years, and we recently spoke this past February … so we had a 50-plus year relationship,” local historian MacArthur Myers said.

Robinson was well known as a conversationalist and public speaker, according to Perkins.

“He was a remarkable speaker, a great Councilman and a great keeper of the law. He knew the law well and shared his knowledge with people; he was so generous with his time and his thoughts, and his whole personality was about giving,” Perkins said.

Robinson’s election to City Council was significant both for what he did and for who he was.

“Ira had tremendous street credit within the community. He was a member of the NAACP, and a member of the Northern Virginia Urban League,” Myers, who served as a volunteer for Robinson’s campaign when he was 16, said. “Ira represented hope. He was articulate, smart. He was a lawyer, and he was a visionary.”

After his Council term ended, Robinson, who worked for the Susquehanna Corporation, transferred to the company’s Los Angeles office, according to the city’s news release. There, he worked with various law firms as an advisor on real estate law and healthcare in California until his retirement in 2006, according to the City of Alexandria’s release. Robinson then moved to Temecula, Calif., and continued his political activism by registering voters, campaigning for Democratic Congressional candidates in red districts and becoming a member of the NAACP’s Southwest Riverside County branch legal redress committee.

He had returned to Northern Virginia on two separate occasions in recent years as a representative of the national Democratic Party’s voter protection team to help oversee Election Day voting. His determination for social and political change never wavered, even as a retiree, according to the city’s release.

In addition to his many accomplishments, Robinson is also remembered for his charming demeanor.

“He was one of the kindest, nicest, most intelligent men out there. He could talk about literature, he could talk about politics, the Supreme Court. You name it, Ira could discuss it, and Alexandria was lucky to have him,” Perkins said.

Ira L. Robinson was born July 26, 1938, to the late Courtland and Lottie Olphin Robinson in New York City. He graduated from the Virginia Union University in 1959 and was admitted to the University of Virginia School of Law in 1964.

He is survived by his former wives, Sharon Derring Robinson of Playa Vista, Calif., and Barbara Thibault Robinson of Irvine, Calif.; as well as his daughter, Cary D. Robinson, of Playa Vista; his son Marcus A. Robinson (Raquel Lizniansky) of Tracy, Calif.; his two granddaughters, Jasmine Tookes-Borrero (Juan David Borrero) and Chloe D. Conwell; his great-granddaughter Mia Victoria Borrero; his great niece and nephews Dorianna, Trevor, Isaac and Brian Gardner; and his lifelong friends, Andrew Epps of Richmond, Andrew Evans of Washington, D.C., and Mary Ames, originally of Alexandria.

Robinson’s family asks that in lieu of flowers, gifts in memory of Robinson be sent to his undergraduate college, Virginia Union University in Richmond, or to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. A celebration of Robinson’s life will be held near his home at a later date.