Last week, we profiled Diane White Clatto, a pioneering Black woman in the world of television. Her memory and accomplishments brings to mind the odyssey of Max Robinson, another media trailblazer.
To some extent, the burdens of success that would trouble Robinson later were evident at the beginning of his life because he was expected to succeed in a family of high achievers. Born May 1, 1939, in Richmond, Va., Robinson was a highly motivated and talented student, and this reputation would be firmly certified during his freshman year at Oberlin College, where he was president of his class.
After reasonably successful matriculation at Indiana University and Virginia Union University, where he received his degree, Robinson joined the Air Force and later was honorably discharged because of a medical condition, according to the Black Past website.
The first barrier he hurdled as he embarked on a career in television was in Portsmouth, Va., in 1959. He boldly applied for a position at the station with a “whites only” policy, which was legal at that time. Robinson was chosen over several other candidates after he was allowed to audition. However, while reading the news on the air, at no time was his face to be seen.
Never one to mince his words or to compromise his integrity, Robinson complained bitterly about the policy and was fired for his protestations. Having been forced behind the scenes, he succumbed to the relegation and worked at WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C., as a cameraman and doing other jobs behind the camera.
By 1967, he was finally in front of the camera at WRC-TV in the nation’s capital, where he would remain until 1978, earning a number of awards and citations, mainly for his coverage of the civil rights struggle during that period.
Most notable was his sensitive and intimate coverage of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, which brought him a wave of accolades and commendations. This and other top stories given his personal touch, and at times an uncommon empathy, increased his audience and he was soon at the pinnacle of broadcasters in Washington, D.C.
All of these accomplishments did not go unnoticed. In 1978, Roone Arledge, an ABC executive, selected him to be a co-anchor of “ABC News,” a position he held for five years but not without rancor. That calmness under fire that made him attractive to executives was less than tempered when it came to what he perceived as indifference and discriminatory policies.
Clearly, there was added pressure being the nation’s first Black television network anchor, which he shared on “World News Tonight,” from his base in Chicago with Frank Reynolds in Washington and Peter Jennings in London. At times, he felt his unique African-American perspective on issues was not respected.
“I remember someone once saying to me that I wasn’t a team player,” he told a reporter. “And I said, ‘I’d be happy to play on the team if the rules were not structured against me and my people.’” The apparent calm was gradually becoming irreconcilably fractious. It was perhaps what he deemed the station’s tendency to report negatively on the Black community that made him all the more uncooperative, sometimes not showing up on time or at all.
Possibly seeking refuge from the mounting pressure, Robinson, having earned an Emmy for his reportage, began to drink, which was followed by bouts of depression. By 1985, his glorious ride to the top was beginning to unravel and he was relegated to weekend anchoring and spot news from Chicago at WMAQ-TV.
This was the beginning of the end of his journalistic venture, with only a few irregular freelance jobs keeping him afloat after retiring from WMAQ-TV. Much of his time was taken up with recovering from the alcoholism that took him in and out of several treatment centers. His physical health was soon compromised again when he was hospitalized for pneumonia. From this illness and further study by a team of doctors, he was diagnosed with AIDS.
His retreat from public life was now increased with the affliction of AIDS, which brought him shame. Not until 1988 did he make a public appearance in St. Louis at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, an organization in which he was among the founding members.
Several months later, Robinson ignored family and friends’ request to stay home and rest when he was invited to speak at a reception at Howard University. He died in Washington, D.C., Dec. 20. He was 49. He told the Rev. Jesse Jackson that he had not contracted AIDS from homosexuality but from “promiscuity … let my predicament be a source of education to our people.”
“Max had a tremendous impact on our organization and its membership,” said DeWayne Wickham, at that time president of the National Association of Black Journalists. “He was more than a simple legend. Max Robinson was a hero in a profession not known for its good guys … by his success he epitomized the hopes and aspirations of thousands of Black journalists, and in his failure Max brought home to our membership the frailties of our existence in this industry.”
Robinson, according to remarks from newscaster Bernard Shaw, was “Engine No. 1. His impact will go on for generations.”
Some of his legacy is certainly found in the increased presence of Black journalists on television in major markets. His legacy endures, too, in the success of his siblings, none more noteworthy than author and activist Randall Robinson.
Jackson, Robinson’s close friend, delivered the eulogy, saying, “Max … wouldn’t adjust, wouldn’t knuckle under in the face of obvious, and not so obvious racism.”