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Texas Matters - The Ghost of Frank J. Robinson

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

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

“I don't believe in ghosts either, but he 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.”

Days earlier on October 14, 1976, Frank J Robinson’s body was found on the floor of their Palestine Texas 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.

And the question then and now is, did Frank J. Robinson kill himself? Or was he murdered? But murdered in such a deliberate way as to make it look like suicide? Why? Perhaps because Robinson was making too much “good trouble.”

Frank used the power of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and he successfully challenged anti-Black gerrymandering practices at the county level in Anderson County and also forced the Palestine City Council to adopt single member districts.

This was the first time since reconstruction that Black voters in East Texas were able to elect their own representatives.

East Texas was a part of the Old South. This is where Jim Crow was once the status quo. This – Palestine Texas – Anderson County is a part of Texas where the Confederate battle flag still frequently flown.

And anyone who empowers Black voters and challenges the historic white power structure will be making serious enemies – the kind of enemies who use deadly violence as a tool.

And the fear was, this is what happened to Frank J. Robsinson. That he was murdered. That it was covered up.

According to Dorothy, Frank J. Robinson wasn’t worried about the threats he’d receive. There would be anonymous phone calls to the Robsinson house, and she told an interviewer in 1995, when she was 85 years old, Frank would brush them off.

“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 saying, of letting me know that he did have some fears.“

And Dorothy said Frank knew there was going to be a cost one day to change things – and that cost would be paid in blood.

"I had no idea that he was in, in danger, really, if I had I'm sure I would've discouraged some of the things he did, but knowing Frank, he would not have wanted me to discourage him. And if he had to do it all over again, he would do it. That was, he was just that dedicated. And so often he would say change is always painful. And he'd say, but what is a little bloodshed? Because it takes that to get, he said, my, and these are his words. My blood or yours or anybody. He said, blood changed a lot of times results in bloodshed, and he'd go back. Jesus Christ. He'd go right back. He was a very religious person."

When he died Frank J. Robinson was an established and well-known voting rights advocate and political leader in East Texas.

A murdered Frank J. Robinson would have created a martyr for the cause like Medgar Evers, who in 1963 was was leading a campaign for integration in Jackson Mississippi when he was shot and killed by a sniper at his home.
A martyred Frank J. Robinson could have created even a bigger set of problems for those who opposed protecting voting rights.

But a Frank J. Robinson who was murdered in a way to make it look like a suicide – that’s something else. That could solve a lot of problems for the people who don’t want the political empowerment of the Black community in East Texas.

If that is the case, if there were people who plotted to kill Frank J. Robinson, then they didn’t count on Dorothy.
Dorothy who saw her husband’s ghost and never believed anything, but he was murdered.

"I heard him say and looked like he was standing just as plainly. And then after, after I said that, after he said, 'it's a lie.' And I said, 'You don't have to tell me, I know you didn't kill yourself.' He just faded, just faded back. He didn't come forward. I didn't see any movement of arms or legs. Like he just faded back in the scene."

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi