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The 1976 Murder Of Frank J. Robinson, Deep East Texas Voting Rights Activist

The 1976 Murder Of Frank J. Robinson, Deep East Texas Voting Rights Activist

Nearly 50 years later, too many questions go unanswered.

Frank J. Robinson, the grandson of enslaved people, was born in 1902 in Smith County, Texas. Robinson grew up in Antioch and settled in Palestine, Texas, after graduating from Prairie View College. He became the superintendent of Butler School District and retired in the early 1960s.

After he retired, Frank J. Robinson wanted to focus his life and efforts on education and voting rights in Deep East Texas. Robinson organized Black leaders, started the Anderson County Civic League (ACCL), and organized local, regional, state, and national voting rights activists. Soon after, he became the public relations director for the East Texas Leadership Forum and the face of voting rights activism in East Texas.

Racial equality has always been a struggle in Deep East Texas, going back to Reconstruction and until the 1999 murder of James Byrd JR in Jasper, Texas. Even now, under the radar or widely accepted, parts of Deep East Texas still struggle with racial equality. So, you can only imagine the feathers Frank J. Robinson ruffled in the 1960/70s fighting for voting rights.

The racial gerrymandering in Anderson County.

In 1974, Frank J. Robinson and several others sued Anderson County over the racially gerrymandered commissioner court precinct lines, diluting the Black voting power. Robinson won, which led to the commissioner’s court lines being redrawn fairly and equally.

Robinson transformed the political landscape in East Texas. Before his lawsuit, no Black person in Anderson County had ever been elected to political office. Afterward, dozens of Black politicians have since run and held office in Anderson County.

Frank J. Robinson should be remembered as one of the greats since he fought for equality in a time and place when people were killed for such things. And for Robinson, it ultimately cost him his life.

October 13, 1976.

On October 13, 1976, Frank J. Robinson was gunned down in his home.

Immediately after he was killed, Palestine Police Chief Kenneth Berry told Robinson’s family and friends that it was a clear case of homicide.

Dr. John Warfield, secretary of the NAACP, said to the media, “It is clear that this Ku Klux Klan-style murder and terror is as real on the 200th birthday of this immature nation as it was in the 19th century. There is a conspiracy in this state to obstruct the political rights and political awakening of Black and brown people and the powerful potential constituency they represent.”

Warfield also criticized Governor Dolph Briscoe and Secretary of State Mark White for opposing the Voting Rights Act, saying it created a climate that legitimized such things as assassinations.

Despite the narrative and alleged evidence, Frank J. Robinson’s death was considered suicide.

Allegedly, Robinson shot himself with a shotgun in his garage. The Police Chief publicly supported the suicide theory within days after his body was found.

Here’s where the narrative takes a turn. An October 26, 1976 article mentions two shotgun shells on the floor. Robinson didn’t shoot himself twice, didn’t miss, and then had to try again. So, why would there have been two shells on the floor?

In a 1996 interview with Dorthey Robinson, Frank Robinson’s widow, the police found four shotgun shells. One of the shells was recovered across the street near a playground, and Mrs. Robinson said the shells caused damage to her car, which was parked in the driveway.

In this interview, Mrs. Robinson also claimed to have a tape, which she said she would give to the interviewer. The tape came from the Anderson County Sheriff, who was running for re-election, and on the tape, a witness said that another man he was going to auto repair school with admitted to killing Frank J. Robinson for a payoff.

In November 1976, the county held an inquest regarding Robinson’s death.

A strange development. If Frank J. Robinson killed himself, why would they need to hold an inquest?

The inquest lasted for three days, longer than any in the county’s history at the time. Several children on the playground testified that they all saw a man in a yellow shirt running and heard the four shots. However, the prosecuting attorney said the kids were too far away to see the color of a person’s shirt.

When the autopsy returned, it said that Robinson hadn’t eaten in the 24 hours before his death, but his sister-in-law and neighbor could testify to him eating lunch and dinner the day before.

Frank J. Robinson had plans for civic engagement, travel, and even hotel reservations at the time of his death. Everyone who knew him swore that he would never take his own life. He was deeply religious, happy, and busy.

Despite all that, the inquest jury labeled Robinson’s death a suicide.

If Frank J. Robinson was murdered, who was involved? According to Dorthey Robinson, who died in 2005, they never did find out who was involved. Mrs. Robinson said she didn’t believe the Police Chief had a hand in it, but he likely found out when he changed the narrative from homicide to suicide. In addition, the County Judge, N. R. Link, was out of town when the incident happened, which never sat well with Robinson’s family.

Frank J. Robinson’s friends and family, almost all since passed, believed that it was a political murder and one or more county elected officials in Anderson County had a part in it.

Almost 50 years later, this may be one incident we’ll never get answers for.

In the 1970s, in a part of Texas historically known for the oppression and systematic murders of Black people, Frank J. Robinson stood for civil rights, brought historical change to Deep East Texas, and ultimately died for it.

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