Max Robinson | The obscurity of America’s first black news anchor

Illustration by Iain Duffus
Illustration by Iain Duffus

It’s been almost three decades since American news outlets rushed to report the unexpected death of Maxie Cleveland “Max” Robinson — the Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist who became America’s first black nightly news anchor after joining “ABC’s World News Tonight” in 1978 — on Dec. 20, 1988.

Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1939. He came into adulthood during the height of the Civil Rights movement when Richmond’s Jackson Ward District was the major centers of operations for NAACP activity in the south. Despite becoming a nationally-recognized television personality and voice of journalistic integrity, Robinson’s name has been obscured, if not forgotten — even within journalism communities.

America’s collective memory lapse of Robinson’s name and impact was most recently illuminated in 2015 when Lester Holt was named the new anchor of “NBC’s Nightly News.” Across social media and news outlets, Holt was referenced as “the first black man” to anchor a nightly news show. It was an uncomfortable reminder that Robinson’s achievements are overshadowed by his personal struggle with alcoholism and reports of increasing irritability and rage towards the end of his life and career as journalist.

Additionally, Robinson’s death from HIV/AIDS during the height of the global pandemic made him a subject of immediate defamation rather than appreciate for his contribution. Within his private circle, Robinson denied allegations of being a closeted gay man. Rather, as demonstrated by his numerous marriages and his nickname, “Max the Player,” he told his close friends he acquired the virus from an active sex life.

At the time of his death, the disease was being scapegoated on the burgenoning LGBTQ-rights movement, and was associated with racialized stereotypes of an “immoral” black community, but Robinson’s decision to remain quiet about the disease also offended members of the black community.

“It’s very ironic that it’s being said he wanted to be remembered for the need for black Americans to be educated about AIDS, because he never really acknowledged he was a person with AIDS when he was alive,” said Don Edwards, the former executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council in Washington, in a 1988 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Regardless of his faults, Robinson was primed from birth to focus on issues of race. His ability to breach social barriers during decisive moments of racial equality is why he successfully rose to the top hour of national news cycles.

In 1959, after completing his education at Oberlin College and Virginia Union University, Robinson was hired at WTOV-TV in Portsmouth, Virginia. He was instructed to narrate the news each night behind a screen so audiences wouldn’t know he was black. In 1965, Robinson decided to pull down the screen during a broadcast; the station was bombarded with complaints from viewers and Robinson was fired the next day.

“He’d gotten these calls from some irate whites who’d found out that one of ‘those people’ was working there,” Robison said in a 1969 interview.

The act of defiance, coupled with Robinson’s keen eye detail and his  “buttery” voice soon landed him jobs in Washington D.C. By 1966, he was a regular on nationally syndicated “Meet the Press,” and was hired by D.C.’s Channel 4 where he won several awards and became the station’s first black reporter.

In 1969, Robinson joined the District’s WTOP as the first black reporter for the station. In 1971 he joined Gordon Peterson on the highly sought-after  6-11 p.m. newscasts and hosted their “On the Camera” investigative news cast.

In the midst of his success in the capital he released a documentary, “The Other Washington” which recorded the lives of people in Anacostia, one of the city’s most notorious black ghettos. He focused on discriminatory laws which left the city’s black population stuck  in poverty and inequality across health, education and income spectrums.

The film won four local-Emmy nominations and his coverage of the civil rights movement and the assassination of the Reverend  Martin Luther King made him a favorite anchor personality in the area. In 1975 he joined a coalition to start the National Association of Black Journalists which continues to function today.

On the contrary, signs of Robinson’s deteriorating mental health were exhibited in his fast paced marriages. In 1973, he shot off a round of gunfire while standing on his apartment terrace but explained he was distraught over the recent passing of his father. His popularity was so high that the incident was soon forgotten.

“The demons had made themselves known,” wrote former Washington Post columnist William Raspberry. “Indeed, it seemed to his friends that Max was forever the subject of some macabre competition between his demons and his manifest talent.”

In 1978, Robinson, alongside Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings, was hired on “ABC’s Nightly News,” which reported every night from Chicago. Robinson was used to being the only black journalist in a newsroom, but seemed overwhelmed at the idea of being the first black anchor of a nightly national newscast.

I can remember walking down the halls and speaking to people who would look right through me,” Robinson told Peter Benjaminson in the book Contemporary Authors. “It was hateful at times (…) I’ve been the first too often, quite frankly.

While at ABC, Robinson was competing with two other white anchors and often found himself being regulated as a mouthpiece with little control over stories. His increasing mental health issues and erratic behaviors — visible hostility towards co-workers, not showing up to work or showing up late — in conjunction with his “more important” but also more limited national position ate away his confidence and increased the pressure on him.

“I think one of my basic flaws has been a lack of esteem, not really feeling great about myself, always feeling like I had to do more,” Robinson told the Washington Post in the early 1980s. “I never could do enough or be good enough. And that was the real problem.

Robinson all but disappeared from the public eye in the last four years of his life. He remained active with social issues he cared about, but his last public appearance was at a Howard Keynote address in 1988.

His HIV/AIDs diagnosis came a year before his death in December 1988, but remained a secret because, as it had been his whole career, Robinson’s main focus was on being a representative for the larger black community. Robinson was one of the most respected journalists of his time with an ability to relate his concerns of racial injustice and  profiling in white newsrooms and to primarily white news audiences.

The decision — conscious or not — to remove Robinson as a trailblazer for black Americans in the newsroom is in step with a tradition of political correctness. He had a messy life of extreme professional highs and  equally extreme personal lows fueled with self doubt, mental health issues and isolation.

Above all, the collective forgetting of Robinson’s raises the question if society only wants to recognizes idols they view as perfect or if society is willing to reconcile the nuances of success and imperfection of the people who, in their own way, made their communities stronger and more inclusive.

Robinson’s presence attracted black Americans and other minorities to watch national nightly news cycles as Robinson. His contemporaries describe Robinson as someone who had the ability to make anyone open up, even after he fell from national favor into obscurity.


Siona Peterous. Photo by Julie TrippSiona Peterous
Siona is a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations and a double minor in media studies and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily influenced by her family’s immigrant background and often writes about the intersection of politics with identity. Siona is an advocate for grassroots activism and political movements, and her dream job involves multimedia-based investigative journalism. She has a plethora of life goals but is only focusing on two right now: learning as many languages as possible and perfecting her Instagram aesthetic. [email protected]

1 Comment

  1. Very nice article. How about doing one about the first black members of congress: First black Senator and Representatives: Sen. Hiram Revels (R-MS), Rep. Benjamin S. Turner (R-AL), Robert DeLarge (R-SC), Josiah Walls (R-FL), Jefferson Long (R-GA), Joseph Rainey and Robert B. Elliott (R-SC)

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