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Questions still haunt death of Texas civil rights hero

 Frank J. Robinson
Briscoe Center For American History
Frank J. Robinson

In 1976, a Texas civil rights leader died under mysterious circumstances that today continue to baffle the residents of Palestine. The death of Frank J. Robinson is remembered by many as a miscarriage of justice that needs to be rectified.

In the first part of a series of reports Texas Public Radio’s David Martin Davies investigates.

Dorothy Robinson was back in her home in Palestine, Texas for the first time since the funeral of her husband Frank. Dorothy said that’s when she saw and spoke to her husband’s ghost.

“I don't believe in ghosts either, but it looked like he came to the hall and stood at the bedroom door, and he said, ‘Dear, it's a lie.’ And I said, just as plain as I'm talking to you, I said, ‘You don't need to tell me, I know you didn't kill yourself,'” said Robinson.

Days earlier, on October 14, 1976, Frank J Robinson’s body was found on the floor of their garage. There was a shotgun across his legs and the top of his head was blown away. His body had been there for a full day before it was discovered.

The question then and now is, did Frank J. Robinson kill himself? Or was he murdered? But why would anyone do that? Perhaps, because Robinson was making too much “good trouble.”

For decades Robinson had been organizing Black voters in East Texas. He successfully sued Anderson County over its anti-Black gerrymandered maps. He also forced the Palestine City Council to adopt single member districts. A week later he was found dead.

In 1995 Dorothy recorded an oral history and said that the 74-year-old would frequently receive anonymous threatening phone calls.

“He said these words many, many, many times. He'd say ‘Girl, if they kill me now, they haven't done anything but killed an old man, because I've done just about all I can do.’ Now, that may have been his way of letting me know that he did have some fears,“ she said.

Robinson’s death was first reported in newspapers across the state as a murder, but days later Palestine Police Chief Kenneth Barry said it was a suicide. Texas civil rights leaders didn’t agree. They said it was a KKK-style assassination. They wanted the FBI to investigate. But instead, there was a public inquest. This is a rare trial-like proceeding where a jury decides the cause of death.

“There was such an outrage in the Black community over there that John Hill who was the Texas Attorney General requested they convene a coroner’s jury,” said Dave Richards, a civil rights attorney who won a historic voting rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court and won Robinson’s anti-Black gerrymandering case. He’s also the former husband of Governor Ann Richards. Dorothy called on Richards to represent the family.

“Mrs. Robinson wanted me to come over for that hearing. An official could order a coroner's jury, which is a jury trial on the issue of the cause of death,” he said.

Richards remembers the inquest as a farce.

“We had a courtroom full of people. And my memory is that they put on somewhat, we thought bogus psychiatrist, I believe, from the Rusk State Hospital, which was over there in that vicinity, and who testified that the pattern of Robinson's behavior was very indicative of a suicide based on nothing either of us could figure out,” said Richards.

The inquest spanned four days and included testimony from 35 witnesses – much of which was conflicting. Some of the most pivotal witness testimony was challenged with polygraph results. A neighbor testified that Robinson never spoke of suicide, but a polygraph examiner said she wasn’t telling the truth. This would be inadmissible in most Texas trials - because polygraphs are unreliable and there can be bias in their interpretation.

The six-member jury decided that Robinson died by his own hand. But that wouldn’t be the end of it. Robinson’s supporters denounced the verdict.

“No one in the black community of Palestine ever thought it was anything other than a Klan assassination,” said Richards.

The official finding of suicide had a major flaw: There were witnesses.
Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

David Martin Davies is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Texas, the border and Mexico.