Max Robinson’s Silent Struggle With AIDS
In his short life, former ABC television anchorman Max Robinson admitted having many problems: alcohol abuse, racial struggles, career disaster and three failed marriages. But he never publicly acknowledged having the disease that would end his life.
Yet in his death at 49, Robinson had his family reveal that he had AIDS so that others in the black community would be alerted to the dangers of the disease and the need for treatment and education.
AIDS activists have been grappling with that paradox in the hours since his death Tuesday, while Robinson’s close friends defend his right to privacy.
Some activists expressed disappointment that Robinson, who was the nation’s first black network news anchorman, did not choose to serve as a spokesman to the black community about how to prevent the disease.
“I’m saddened in the sense that Max Robinson had a real significant value as a symbol for the black community and it would have been more powerful had Max Robinson been enlisted (in the fight against AIDS) while he was alive, talking about himself as a person with AIDS,” said Don Edwards, the executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council in Washington.
“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. Many of us were aware of his diagnosis and we would have liked to have had the credibility of his message added to the work we were trying to do.”
Robinson did not speak out publicly, said his close friend, history professor and ex-journalist Roger Wilkins, because “he needed all his strength to fight the disease.”
“You know how you people (press) are,” Wilkins added. “If Max had said a year ago, ‘I have AIDS, and I’m going to be a spokesman for research on AIDS,’ it would have killed him in six months. Journalists would have been all over him day after day, not only with questions for guidance in life but also with extraordinarily personal questions.
“The man had a limited time to live. He did what I think is a gallant, absolutely appropriate thing, fight the disease, give strength and comfort to people who loved him and were close to him, nurture young black journalists, and then use his death as a major educational event.”
Wilkins angrily characterized as “squalid” queries about how Robinson was infected.
“It’s nobody’s business. He was my close friend and I don’t know, so why do strangers who pay a quarter for the newspaper have to know?” said Wilkins.
After becoming the first black person to co-anchor a national news broadcast at ABC in 1978, Robinson spoke out about racial prejudice at his workplace to a Smith College audience in 1981. In 1983 he left the network after being demoted, and lasted only two years at Chicago’s WMAQ before leaving to free-lance, essentially disappearing from broad public view.
Along the way, there were episodes of drinking, erratic behavior and failure to show up at important times.
In an interview with the Washington Post last May, Robinson explained his problems by saying, “I think one of my basic flaws has been a lack of self-esteem, not really feeling good about myself, always feeling like I had to do more. I never could do enough or be good enough. And that was the real problem.”
Wilkins said, “America does weird things to people. Max started out in segregated schools in Richmond and ended up in the news room of ABC and that’s a long trip. And he started out in days of deep segregation when the whole white culture was telling the little boy he was second-class.
“And I don’t care how strong you are or how strong your parents are, that is a terrible thing to do to a human being. It gets inside him and makes things shrivel where they should be growing.”
In Robinson’s final months, his friends said, he exuded a sense of peace and serenity and was always more interested in talking about what others were doing than in dwelling on his illness.
“I think the love of friends was one of the things that kept Max alive for such a long time,” said Bernard Shaw, a news anchor for Cable News Network and a close friend for 20 years. “Max at the time of his death had more arms around him than he had when he was fighting lonely battles fighting racism in the (television) industry, fighting the things all of us deal with in our personal lives.
“He had no bitterness whatsoever at the end. I called him from Westwood the night before I anchored the presidential debate and he used most of his energy in that conversation wishing me well and telling me how much he was proud of me and how much he loved me.”
Shaw said he does not know how Robinson got AIDS.
“I never brought it up with him,” said Shaw. “We had a secret code that when we wanted to talk about personal things we would initiate the subject and not be asked about it. He knew I loved him and respected his privacy. I never discussed the subject of AIDS with him.
“I do know one of the deepest veins he felt was the vision of himself as a teacher, and he sought to lead by example. I think his death will be another attention-getter along with those of comparable stature and publicity. I think it reminds us we’re all members of one family.”
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the body’s immune system. It is transmitted through sexual intercourse, through the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles, by woman to fetus during pregnancy and also through transfusions of contaminated blood or blood products.
In the United States, AIDS has primarily afflicted homosexual and bisexual men, although 11% of black people who suffer from AIDS are heterosexual. Minorities as a whole, who make up only 20% of the U.S. population, account for more than 40% of the nearly 81,000 reported cases of AIDS. Blacks accounted for 21,472 cases.
Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, another good friend of Robinson’s said that Robinson “certainly expressed to me the fact that he was not gay and had never abused hard drugs. He had never used drugs, period.”
Page, who was helping Robinson write an autobiography, said Robinson “was troubled. A lot of us are troubled. Those negative aspects of his life were continuing sources of frustration and disappointment for him. Like all of us there are things he’d like to have done differently.
Page said that Robinson “really wanted to let people know he was most concerned about race relations and what it means to be a black person in America. His proudest memory of his childhood was a time he drank out of a ‘Whites Only’ water fountain in a store, an act of defiance.”
AIDS activists, however, applaud Robinson’s posthumous wish that his death be used to further AIDS publicity.
“For a long time this disease was seen as a disease of gays,” said John Jacob, an acquaintance of Robinson’s and co-chair of the citizens committee on AIDS of New York City and Northern New Jersey. “Clearly there was not the kind of attention given to it that we (blacks) need to give it. Clearly, drug use is the major factor causing the disease in black America.
“I have no idea how Max got AIDS. I think the one thing we do know is that if you get it, your sentence is death. . . . We have to attack this disease whatever the causes are.”
Dr. Beny J. Primm, a member of the President’s AIDS commission and a friend of Robinson’s for 10 years, dismissed the discussion over how Robinson got AIDS.
“What’s important,” he said, “is that Max Robinson died of a disease that certainly could have been prevented had certain precautions been taken. I hope he has not died in vain.”