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Media: Max Robinson

By Onaje Morris
On February 21, 2019

Max Robinson started his career in journalism in 1959, and he served as anchor of the eve- ning newscast at ABC from 1978 to 1983. ABCNEWS.COM/Courtesy photo

Who is Max Robinson? Why is he an unsung black historical figure. Max Robinson who was an American broadcast journalist for ABC News and served as a co-anchor for ABC World News Tonight. He was also the first African American broadcast network news anchor in the history of American television. He was also one of the original founders of the National Association of Black Journalists.

 

Max Robinson was born on May 1, 1939 in Richmond, Virginia. A very bright student, he later attended Oberlin College where he served as president of the freshmen class. He later attended Indiana University and eventually earned his degree from Virginia Union University. Robinson served in the Air Force and eventually received an honorable discharge due to a medical condition.

 

Robinson began his television journey in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1959 where he applied for a position at a local radio station that had a “whites only” policy which at the time was legal. The station owner allowed Robinson to audition for a position along with several white candidates. Robinson was given a job reading the news on the air, Although the station selected him over an otherwise all-white group of applicants, it still enforced a color barrier by projecting an image of the station’s logo to conceal Robinson as he read the news. He was fired the day after he presented the news without the logo obscuring his face.

 

When Robinson protested, he was fired. Afterwards he moved to Washington, D.C. and worked at WTOP-TV as a cameraman trainee and in other behind the scene jobs. Robinson found a job at Washington’s WRC-TV in 1967, remaining there until 1978.

 

While there he won six journalism awards for his coverage of civil rights events of the era including the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  By the end of the decade, Robinson was one of the most popular news anchors in the nation’s capital. 

 

In 1978, Robinson was selected by ABC executive Roone Arledge to become the co-anchor of ABC News. He served in this capacity until 1983.

 

He left ABC in 1984 to become the first black anchor at WMAQ in Chicago. But it didn’t last, and he left WMAQ in 1985. Unfortunately, just when it appeared that he was about to put his life in order, he was hospitalized in Blue Island, Illinois, with pneumonia. It didn’t take doctors long to figure out the cause of his ailment. He kept his condition secret.

 

It was thought that most news organizations knew already and decided to honor a fellow journalist’s privacy. To have AIDS at that time was to be a pariah. In some ways, it still is. But in 1988, it was much worse. In the fall of 1988, he traveled back to DC to give a speech at Howard University’s School of Journalism. Later that night, he became increasingly ill, and checked into Howard University Hospital. On the morning of Dec. 20, 1988, Max Robinson passed away. The truth of his condition was finally revealed: he died from complications due to AIDS.

 

Max Robinson deserves as much credit for his achievements in journalism as Edward R. Murrow or Frederick Douglass. But he’s fading from the collective memory. There are no books written about him. There are no documentaries or dramas made of his story. Yes, he was moody and temperamental. His drinking and bouts with depression got in the way of his work in later years. Sometimes the people who loved him were hurt by things he said or did. He made mistakes. And he died from AIDS. But that’s not all that he was.

 

He showed Washingtonians the other side of Washington with his documentary on Anacostia. He risked his life by agreeing to act as a negotiator during the hostage crisis at the Washington Mosque. He broke through the wall of racism by being the first time and time again. He mentored young black journalists who were coming through the door he had opened. He stood up and pointed out racism even in his own network when it would have been easier to just take the money and read the news. He tried to educate his children about their African heritage. He won numerous awards for his efforts and made things a whole lot easier for the African-American journalists of today.

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