This Day in History: May 1st

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Max Robinson, founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and the first black to anchor a national network broadcast news program in the United States was born on May 1, 1939, in Richmond, Va. Robinson attended segregated schools in Virginia before going to Oberlin College, where he was elected freshman class president before dropping out a year and a half later.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force and receiving a medical discharge, he landed in radio in Petersburg, Va. at WSSV-AM, where he dubbed himself “Max the Player.” He started in television in 1959 at WTOV-TV in Portsmouth, Va., where he was forced to read the news while hidden behind a slide of the station’s logo. One night, Robinson removed the slide so that he was visible on the air. He was fired the next day.

He moved to Washington, DC, where he worked at WRC-TV for three years, winning six journalism awards for coverage of the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Robinson also won two regional Emmys for a documentary he made on black life entitled The Other Washington.

In 1969, he became the first black anchor on a local TV news program when he was teamed with Gordon Peterson on The Eyewitness News on WTOP-TV in D.C.vDuring that time, he was so well-liked by viewers that when Hanafi Muslims took hostages at the B’nai B’rith building in Washington they would speak only with Robinson.

In 1978, he was hired by ABC News to anchor World News Tonight with Frank Reynolds in Washington, Peter Jennings, who would be the international anchor out of London and he would be in Chicago. Robinson became the first black man to anchor a nightly network news broadcast. The three-man co-anchor team was a ratings success.

Robinson’s time at ABC News was mired with conflicts with management over the coverage of black people and black stories. Robinson decided to establish, along with journalist, Bob Strickland, a program for mentoring young black broadcast journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ).

Robinson was relegated to mostly weekends following the death of Reynolds in 1983 and Jennings was named sole anchor of World News Tonight. So Robinson left for WMAQ-TV in Chicago, where he became the station’s first black anchor. He retired in 1985.

Robinson, who was married three times and had four children, died on December 20, 1988. After giving a speech at Howard University’s School of Communications, he was hospitalized. There were rumors about his declining health for years. Robinson died of complications due to HIV-AIDS.

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