Samuel Dunn Robinson (1899–1997)

Samuel Dunn Robinson was a lawyer and horseman whose long and colorful life mixed the two passions in nearly equal proportions. He was a criminal lawyer, prosecuting attorney, justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court for sixteen years, soldier, rancher, cowboy, and professional equestrian. When he died, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called him “a cross between the Marlboro Man and Clarence Darrow”—a reference to the cowboy icon of cigarette advertisements and the famous lawyer in the 1925 Scopes evolution trial.

Sam Robinson was born on March 21, 1899, in Greenville, Mississippi, but lived on the Deerfield Plantation in Chicot County, one of the biggest farms in the most prolific cotton-producing county in Arkansas after the Civil War. He was one of four children of Henry Clay and Marion Dunn Robinson. He was given the name of three generations of forebears: Samuel Read Dunn Robinson. His father, who inherited the plantation, became an alcoholic and lost the plantation (and his health) when Robinson was five. His mother, an accomplished pianist, moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) with the children and got a job playing at theaters.

Robinson went to school in Little Rock briefly but quit after the third grade and took many jobs, from carrying the Arkansas Gazette and other newspapers to clerking, selling, and bill-collecting for the Gus Blass Dry Goods Company, which eventually became Dillard’s Department Store. Although his formal education ended early, he read voraciously at the Little Rock Public Library and considered himself a scholar of classical fiction.

Robinson’s memoir, Winning Against the Odds, dictated to his last wife and published in 1993 when he was ninety-four, is a rich compendium of tales about prostitution, murders, lynchings, gambling, blackmail, and other forms of crime, both in Little Rock and around his hometown of Lake Village (Chicot County), to which he returned for a time after World War I.

Early, he developed a fascination with farm animals—horses, cattle, and hogs—that consumed much of his later life. He “broke” a one-eyed gelding when he was only five and later landed a job on a dairy farm near Lake Village, where he broke a three-year-old filly so that he could ride her to drive cattle on the farm.

Three days after the United States entered World War I in 1917, Robinson joined the U.S. Army and spent much of the war in France serving in the 153rd Infantry, although he never saw combat. After the war, he returned to Lake Village and became a riding boss on the Readland Plantation, which was run by George Cracraft Sr., a Harvard Law School graduate and father of George Cracraft Jr., who was a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals for twelve years. Robinson planned to go to Texas and start a ranch, but he decided it was too risky financially and moved back to Little Rock to study law. Having only a third-grade education, he took an exam and tested high enough that he was allowed to enroll at the Little Rock Law School while holding odd jobs with Gus Blass.

He graduated at the top of his class in 1924, opened a practice, and a year later formed a partnership with Robert L. Rogers, one of the state’s leading criminal-defense lawyers. He married Zelma Ruby Gray in 1924; in 1945, he married Mary Ellen Healey. He reared three children. In 1940, he was elected prosecuting attorney for Pulaski and Perry counties, and he served for six years. The role would embroil Robinson in one of the critical political and social upheavals of the post–World War II era—the unification of labor, civil rights, and elements of the veterans’ reform movement.

A strike by the mostly Black unionized employees of the Southern Cotton Oil Mill in Little Rock, which made Wesson cooking oil and Snowdrift shortening, turned violent when a Black strikebreaker confronted a Black union member and stabbed him to death outside the plant. Prosecutor Robinson concluded that Otha Williams, the killer, was justified in the slaying because he had been attacked first. Robinson then prosecuted a group of union leaders under the Anti-Labor Violence Act of 1943, which made union leaders responsible for any violence that occurred around a strike, no matter who started the fight. The union maintained that five strikebreakers had attacked two striking workers who were not on the picket line. A jury convicted the union leaders, and the judge sentenced them to a year in prison at hard labor. The judge also held two Black newspaper editors—L. C. and Daisy Bates—in contempt of court for their attacks on the trial and convictions in their newspaper, the Arkansas State Press. The Arkansas Supreme Court eventually held the Bateses’ convictions to be in violation of the free-press and free-speech guarantees in the state constitution.

The Cotton Oil controversy stimulated several elections in which labor and civil rights united to win, as late as the Little Rock mayor’s race in 1955. In 1946, state Representative Edwin E. Dunaway, with the backing of unions and African Americans, opposed Robinson for reelection and won. Robinson returned to his private law practice in Little Rock. Dunaway was soon appointed justice of the Supreme Court to complete a term.

In 1950, Robinson was elected a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and served two eight-year terms. His account was that former Attorney General Jack Holt Sr. was expected to run for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court, but that Robinson and W. R. “Witt” Stephens, an investment broker, could not persuade him that his old nemesis, former governor Sid McMath, would not block his reelection. So the three of them decided that Robinson should run instead. He did and won. While a justice of the Supreme Court, Robinson commuted from his farm in rural Pulaski County, the Lazy R Ranch.

In a dispute and law case (Cude v. State) as gaudy as his own life, Robinson delivered the majority opinion in a 1964 decision of the Supreme Court that settled a recurring question in Arkansas and the rest of the country—whether religious objections or other personal beliefs allow a person to avoid complying with public health and safety laws like mandatory vaccinations or mask wearing. Archie Cude, a Texas native and a farmer with a big family in rural Polk County, refused to enroll his children in school in violation of the state’s compulsory school-attendance law. He also refused to have his children vaccinated for smallpox, which was required for school. After fining him three years in a row for refusing to enroll the children, the county took him to chancery court, which ordered the children delivered to the custody of the state Welfare Department to be vaccinated. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court, six to one.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robinson wrote that the precedents were so clear that it was hardly worth arguing: laws intended to see that every Arkansas child was educated and that public health and safety were protected had to be enforced. As for the argument that the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty was an acceptable excuse for ignoring the laws, Robinson recited the long section on religious freedom in the state constitution and summarized it this way: “The foregoing provision of the Constitution means that anyone has the right to worship God in the manner of his own choice, but it does not mean that he can engage in religious practices inconsistent with the peace, safety and health of the inhabitants of the State, and it does not mean that parents, on religious grounds, have the right to deny their children an education.”

Governor Orval E. Faubus took Cude’s side, however, and when the chancellor assigned custody of the children to the state Welfare Department, Faubus had the children delivered to the Governor’s Mansion, where they remained for three days. The dispute attracted national attention. Ultimately, the Cudes took the children back and put them in school in Mena (Polk County), where they were soon suspended for disruptive conduct. They eventually returned to school and remained. Robinson’s opinion in the Cude case was cited by Justice Antonin Scalia in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision (Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 1990) that concluded that religious beliefs were not sufficient reason to violate public-safety laws. The case involved two Native Americans who were fired from their state jobs for ingesting peyote, a hallucinogenic plant used in the religious rituals of their church.

In his memoir, Robinson described the hard, lonely work of appellate jurisprudence—reading briefs, studying law, and writing day and night. Although he was elected twice, Robinson said the Arkansas system of electing trial and appellate judges violated the checks-and-balances underpinnings of the American judicial system. Judicial powers arose from the constitution and should not be subject to the vicissitudes of politics, he said. His memoir implied that judicial appellate work was boring, and he retired in 1965, as soon as he had become eligible for a judicial pension.

In addition to sordid stories from his youth, Winning Against the Odds provides a collection of squalid tales of prostitution, killings, and other forms of thuggery in which he was involved as a prosecutor, criminal defender, or close observer—all related in compelling detail.

After leaving the Supreme Court, he returned to law practice, sometimes representing Witt Stephens’s gas interests, but his love for horses and cattle lured him back to ranching and various forms of horsemanship. He rode cutting horses and was on the national board of the American Cutting Horse Association. When Robinson died, his old friend Sid McMath said his passion for riding horses and outdoor life had kept him strong and vigorous until well into his nineties.

Robinson moved to Colorado in 1972. There, he met and married a much younger New York native who shared his love for hunting, trail riding, and horsemanship. Sam and Ruth Ann Robinson started a hunting and trail-riding business, Colorado Trail Riders, with thirty-five trail horses. They lived on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, where their home was without telephone service or mail delivery for ten years. In the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette obituary, his widow said Robinson told her never to mention to anyone in Arkansas that she was from New York. She described him as “a true Southern gentleman of the old school, brilliant, tough, and generous.”

When his health began to decline from living vigorously at high altitudes—their home was 7,000 feet above sea level—Robinson and his wife returned to Little Rock in 1989 and lived on a horse ranch on Stagecoach Road, Twelve Oak Stables, where he held roping and cutting contests every Saturday.

He died on June 7, 1997. He is buried in the Little Rock National Cemetery.

For additional information:
Harold, Shareese. “Justice, Rancher Lived 98 Years to the Fullest.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 9, 1997, p. 4B.

Obituary of Sam Robinson. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 10, 1997, p. 2B.

Robinson, Sam. Winning Against the Odds. Little Rock: Library Research Associates, Inc., 1993.

Williams, Fay. Arkansans of the Years, Volume 1. Little Rock: C. C. Allard & Associates, Little Rock, 1951.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


    I have a copy of Winning Against the Odds signed to my late grandfather, Sport Watkins. Only half-way finished, the book is an absolutely fascinating read for any native Arkansan interested in a vivid glimpse of our state’s history.

    Gregory Watkins Jr. Little Rock, AR