Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


The funeral for Arlington icon John Robinson was held at the Mount Olive Baptist Church last Saturday. It lasted for three hours; not nearly enough time to recount and commemorate all of John’s more than fifty years of remarkable service to Arlington’s community and political life.

John was born into a prominent Arlington black family on August 13, 1934. He decided early on that he would devote his life to equal rights for all and be an advocate for the homeless, hungry, disadvantaged youth, and just about anyone else in need or pain. He was the chief organizer of Northern Virginia’s Congress for Racial Equality in the late fifties, the founder of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center in Arlington’s Green Valley, and its head from inception to the day it closed a few months ago due to his terminal illness.

John would roam his neighborhood at night looking for people in need, particularly the notorious corner of 24th Road and Shirlington Road, which for many years was the center of the drug trade in Arlington. He would collar teenagers, urge them to go straight, and send them up to the center for games and food. His funeral was filled with dozens of people who attested to his life-changing mentorship.

He was very active in politics, too. My wife Jean, who became a close friend of John’s in the early sixties, described his unique style in a eulogy:

“John and I were very close for many years. He and I were precinct captains/workers in Glebe for several years. We walked the streets, were loaned vans from Rosenthal Chevrolet ( I still feel guilty that I never bought a car there) to drive folks to the polls and to go up and down the Green Valley Streets with loudspeakers…I can still hear John shouting at a person on the sidewalk to get himself in the van ‘this minute!’ and they always obeyed. We would have poll watchers checking off folks as they voted, and then go to the houses of those who hadn’t and put them in the van and take them to vote and then take them home. We were aggressive, and we delivered the vote.

“John would also show up at my home on South 18th Street with a grocery bag in hand and go through my kitchen cabinets, taking a can of soup here, a box of cereal there, and throwing in a roll of toilet paper for good measure. He was shameless. I was always living on the edge, a teacher supporting three kids, but John would always let me know that there were others more needy. He was right.

“One of the most moving experiences of my life was after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. when I went with Dorothy Hamm, John, Audrey Wyatt, and many others who had worked on integration issues to a small a Black Church on Columbia Pike for a memorial service. After the service and with no preplanning, we all started walking up the Pike to Walter Reed Drive, through the Nauck community to the playground at (then) Drew School where we formed a circle, joined hands and sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Amid tears and hugs, we knew we needed each other then more than ever.

“John’s eye was always on the prize…even when he was driving us to distraction with his unorthodox methods.  He did not know despair…only perseverance. He taught me to trust my instincts and have the courage of my convictions… major lesson for a little southern girl who had been told for years that she was wrong-headed.

“He was a seminal influence in my life. I loved him then and I love him now.”

We will all deeply miss John Robinson.


Richard Barton may be e-mailed at rbarton@towervillas.com