A group of journalists paid tribute to the life and career of the late Max Robinson, the first Black national television news anchor, during a panel discussion Wednesday, Feb. 20 at the historic Lincoln Theatre in D.C.
The event, “Pioneers of Black Journalism: Honoring the Legacy of Max Robinson,” was moderated by Gordon Peterson, Robinson’s former co-anchor on WUSA-TV (Channel 9).
Panelists included former anchor Maureen Bunyan, current anchor/reporter Bruce Johnson and Robinson’s son Mark Cabot Robinson, an editorial cartoonist and city editor for the Montgomery County Sentinel.
Robinson, who died in 1988 at the age of 49 from AIDS-related complications, was the first Black to anchor a local news program in the U.S., joining Peterson in 1969 at WUSA (then WTOP-TV). He went on to become the first Black national news anchor on ABC’s “World News Tonight” in 1978.
Bunyan, who worked with Robinson at WTOP-TV in the ’70s, lauded his personal and professional commitment, inside and outside the newsroom.
“He was a race man and was extremely concerned about issues facing people of color, especially the Black community in Washington, D.C.,” Bunyan said. “He was not afraid to share his thoughts, to stand up and to challenge any racism he saw.”
Panelists recalled the role Robinson played during the Hanafi Muslim takeover and shootings at City Hall in the District Building in 1977, when he spent many hours, sometimes during live broadcasts, talking with Hanafi leader Hamaas Abdul Khaalis.
Peterson and Bunyan said it was not uncommon for people of color who were in trouble with the law to contact Black journalists in their communities. Often, those Black journalists were asked to cover the story and to sometimes negotiate. During the City Hall takeover, the Hanafi Muslims wanted Robinson to play that role on their behalf.
When Robinson when to ABC News, that prime national exposure came with many challenges. The anchor trio of Robinson, Frank Reynolds, Peter Jennings never clicked.
“Max never got the support, never got the star treatment that you would expect for somebody in that position,” Johnson said.
Mark Robinson shared a more lighthearted view with the audience, saying that his father was not always the serious newsman seen on television. He had a sense of humor that his children always enjoyed.
“When the cameras were off, he could be as goofy as anybody,” Mark said. “That’s what me and my siblings, Maureen and Michael, had in common with our dad. We all are a little goofy.”
The memory-filled occasion, sponsored by PNC Bank, was presented by Whitman-Walker Health, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Whitman-Walker Max Robinson Center in Anacostia.
“We wanted to acknowledge Max Robinson’s legacy and his influence in D.C.’s Black community,” said Jewel Addy, external affairs manager at Whitman-Walker Health. “We wanted to ensure that our patients and clients can see themselves projected into the work we do in the Black community, especially in Wards 7 and 8, where we see a large number of [HIV] infections.”
Months before his death, a very sick Robinson spoke at the Howard University School of Journalism, where he gave students his thoughts about America and how to navigate through life.
During the Feb. 20 panel, Peterson shared Robinson’s words to those students:
“This is a very racist country. I want to see Black people make it very clear that there is a new day a dawning and that those of us who fought the good battle did not labor in vain.
“Try to keep your integrity. The terrible thing about selling out, is that you have nothing left. Believe me, in this country, when you have nothing left to sell, you are absolutely dispensable.”