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Evidence challenges ruling in 1976 death of a Texas civil rights leader

 Frank and Dorothy's former home in Palestine, Texas.
David Martin Davies
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Frank and Dorothy's former home in Palestine, Texas.

When a Southern civil rights leader is found dead under strange and suspicious circumstances, there are bound to be questions. That’s what happened in East Texas in 1976 with the death of Frank J. Robinson.

The controversial official ruling was suicide, but Texas Public Radio’s David Martin Davies has found evidence that challenges this narrative and points to the possibility of murder. Here’s part two in his investigative series.

In 1976 Frank J. Robinson went to the Palestine Texas city council meeting.

“Testing 1-2-3.” Robinson recorded himself saying that because this meeting was so important to him, he wanted to preserve it on his portable cassette recorder.

“We are here, really not as plaintiffs, but we are here as citizens of Anderson County hoping to bring about single-member districts,” Robinson told the city council.

Robinson and other members of the local Black community were there to force the city government to abandon at-large council seats and adopt single-member districts.

“Once Robinson decided he would move forward with litigation there was really nothing that the city council would be able to do about it,” said Larry Daves, a former civil rights attorney in East Texas. Daves worked with Robinson on the Palestine City Council fight. He said Robinson had outfoxed the city council and the city had no choice. They settled and agreed to his plan. This would allow Black elected representation on the council for the first time.

“The city council members were not happy. Probably extremely angry that Robinson and the other members of the Black community were pushing this issue,” said Daves.

Days later Frank J. Robinson was found dead in his garage with a shotgun blast to the head. His death was ruled a suicide, but Daves said he should be remembered as a martyr.

“Frank Robinson should be considered a civil rights hero. In that part of the world, they didn’t want him to be a martyr. They all preferred to have that history, remember him as having taken his own. But I'll never believe he did,” said Daves.

Dorothy Robinson, Frank’s wife also never accepted that he would, with no note or explanation, suddenly take his own life. But add to that, there were witnesses who saw and heard something nefarious the day Frank J. Robinson died.

According to the Texas Rangers report, that day at least seven boys, who were about 11 years old, were playing football in a school yard next to the Robinson house.

Several of the boys said they saw a white van drive up to the Robinson home and two white men got out. The boys heard four shotgun blasts and then the van with a large radio antenna and a smoking muffler fled the Robinson house at a high rate of speed.

Initially police found three spent shotgun shells and later they discovered the fourth. The multiple shots had not been reported in the news. It would have been impossible for the boys to have invented a lie that matched the facts that had yet to be established.

Today, over 45 years later, the memories of many of these boys have faded and altered but some of the boys – now grown men – say they remember a lot.

“He was murdered,” said one, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisals.

“A bunch of us had skipped lunch to start playing football and we saw a white van pull up. We all were kids of hunters. We knew what gun shots sounded like. And there were gunshots. People ran out. We testified to that along with several other students,” he said.

The boys did testify in the Robinson public inquest, but the district attorney focused on inconsistencies in their stories to discredit them and they were disregarded.

John Taylor said he was also a student at that time. However, he wasn’t listed in the Texas Rangers report. I spoke to him near the Robinson house and overlooking the old school field, now abandoned.

“We were out there on the field playing football. We saw that white van come up. I heard a 'Boom! Boom!' The next thing you know that white van took off. Come down this way and when that way. Never heard or seen anything else about it,” Taylor said.

Dorothy Robinson would frequently comment that this was a lead that police never investigated, instead they said Frank J. Robinson committed suicide.
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.