Broadcaster Max Robinson blazed trails for journalists everywhere by becoming the first African-American newscaster to anchor for a major network. Robinson was also the first Black news anchor to work in Washington, D.C. The Richmond, Va. native achieved these feats all while being a vocal proponent of fighting racial injustice in America.
Born May 1, 1939, Robinson got his start in broadcasting in a most controversial fashion. In 1959, after applying for “Whites-only” jobs, Robinson impressed a Portsmouth station manager so much that he was hired to read news on-air. However, a slide hid Robinson’s race from viewers. One night, as shared by journalist Clarence Page, Robinson removed the slide and revealed to viewers he was Black. Robinson lost the job the following day.
The incident motivated Robinson, who hoped to provide an example of excellence that dispelled outdated views of race. Arriving in Washington in the ’60s, Robinson covered local and breaking news for the local NBC affiliate, WRC-TV, then made history in Washington as an anchor for WTOP in 1969. His coverage of race riots that broke out in the city and other reports earned him a pair of local Emmy Awards.
In July 1978, Robinson’s work ethic eventually landed him the ABC News news anchor position. The three-man “World News Tonight” team consisted of Frank Reynolds in Washington, Peter Jenningsin London, and Robinson manning the national desk in Chicago. Despite his success and accolades, Robinson fought personal demons and feelings of inadequacy in his private life. Colleagues heard whispers of alcoholism and other issues, and the death of his father deeply troubled him as well.
Still, those private matters never held Robinson back from attracting attention for his work. He relished being a role model for Black youth, and often railed against his employers about the way Blacks were portrayed in the media.
The trio was a hit with viewers, but Robinson’s personal issues worsened. That and his increasing disillusionment with how racism was reported in the media caused him to eventually leave ABC. From there, he made another historic run by becoming the first Black anchor for local Chicago station, WMAQ.
Unfortunately, Robinson’s troubles continued in Chicago to the point he believed his colleagues were setting him up. He left WMAQ in 1985.
Robinson was diagnosed with AIDS but initially kept his condition a secret. He succumbed to the disease in December 1988 at age 49.