Last updated: 7 months ago
*Exact date of death in April 1973 unknown
Ray Robinson, who disappeared at the 1973 American Indian Movement takeover of the Pine Ridge reservation village of Wounded Knee, S.D., had deep ties to the civil rights movement.
Robinson traveled to South Dakota in April 1973 and never returned, said his wife, Cheryl Robinson, 59, of Detroit. His body never was found and little is known about what happened.
But his life is well documented in the decade before.
According to people who knew him, Ray Robinson was in Washington in1963 for King's "I Have A Dream" speech. He also attended the 1964 funeral of three white civil rights workers killed in Mississippi. And in 1968, Robinson was among the protesters who set up Resurrection City, a camp at the Washington Mall.
Cheryl Buswell Robinson grew up in a staunchly Republican family in Wisconsin and met Ray Robinson in 1965 at an antiwar rally in Madison, Wis. She had dropped out of college, and he had been brought in to organize the demonstration.
"He was a worker in the movement," Cheryl Robinson said. "I wanted to get involved in the civil rights movement."
Rose Sanders, Alabama's first black female judge, said that for Ray Robinson, the civil rights movement was a calling.
"He was a true soldier. He was a true liberator. He really believed all people should be free," she said in a telephone interview.
"Ray was always involved in justice for everybody," said his younger sister, Naima Latif of Pittsboro, N.C. "He was a nonconformist to the status quo. If it was unjust, he wouldn't go along with it."
Bradford Lyttle of the United States Pacifist Party said he met Robinson while leading two to three dozen people who were walking from Quebec, Canada, to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to oppose nuclear proliferation,segregation and the embargo against Cuba.
Ray Robinson identified himself as an ex-prize fighter and was liked by the people immediately, Lyttle said.
"He was quite forthcoming and very vigorous and willing to take risks. He put himself out in front of the project. And we decided we would take him on into the South," Lyttle said.
Robinson tried to take on a leadership role almost immediately and eventually came to accept the group's commitment to nonviolence, he said.
"We urged people not to get angry or hate the people we were struggling against. It took Ray a certain amount of time to understand that," Lyttle said. "I didn't think he was much of an organizer. I think he was sort of a fellow who in a tight situation he liked to step forward and say, 'Follow me."'
Because segregation and racism were rampant, the walkers often were threatened, yelled at and even beaten, he said.
"He was the main target because he was so big and outspoken," Lyttle said.
Time in jail
One of the most documented confrontations happened at Albany, Ga., when group members were arrested as they tried to walk through the town's business district, Lyttle said. Instead of struggling, they went limp and allowed officers to carry them to jail, where they refused to eat, he said.
According to the book "Prison Notes" by the late writer and political activist Barbara Deming, Ray Robinson spent 24 days in the Albany jail after the group was arrested and 27 more days after the group was picked up again for trying to walk through town. He also refused to drink water for part of the incarceration, she wrote.
Besides Robinson and Lyttle, one of the other men jailed in Albany was Allen Cooper. He, like Ray Robinson, also refused to drink water during some of their time behind bars. Ten years later, Cooper was at Wounded Knee for 59 of the 71 days AIM occupied it and met Robinson again, he said in a telephone interview from his Albuquerque, N.M., home.
"I saw him one time when he first came in and that was the last time I saw him. I heard that he walked out with other people but I don't know that. I was stunned because I didn't expect to see him," Cooper said.
"Ray was handsome, tall, very athletic, really good poet, intense, bright, quick laugh, quick smile. Courageous as hell. He was a beautiful man, truly."
Perry Ray Robinson Jr. was born Sept. 12, 1937, in Washington, said Cheryl Robinson.
Latif, his sister, said their mother was a nurse and was pregnant with her during the Depression when their father was shot and killed during a poker game. Their mother was left to raise four children on her own, she said.
Ray and Cheryl Robinson were living in the Washington area in August 1966 when their first child was born. Even then, work was as much a part of Ray Robinson's life as family.
Little Desiree remained in the hospital about a week after her birth because of complications. Instead of taking the baby straight home to her waiting mother, Ray Robinson first stopped by the civil rights office.
"Stokely Carmichael held me before my mother held me," Desiree Mark said of the civil rights leader who coined the phrase "black power."
Even the way Robinson filled out his children's birth certificates showed his disdain of separating people by race. Instead of filling in the blank next to "Negro" or "colored," he crossed it out and wrote in "human" each time.
"His whole thing was not black civil rights. It was human civil rights. My race is human," said Desiree Mark.
"So we're officially humans," added her sister, Tamara Kamara.
Farming and family
After King's assassination in April 1968, Robinson moved his family to Bogue Chitto, Ala., and began a communal farm on 10 acres, where they regularly had run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan, Cheryl Robinson said.
The couple also helped start a medical clinic for people in the poverty-stricken area who had no understanding of nutrition, she said. Cheryl Robinson said she didn't want her husband to go to Wounded Knee because she felt he was needed on the farm.
"He left as we were getting ready for spring planting. He wouldn't listen to me. I pulled out all the stops and he wouldn't change his mind," she said.
Cheryl Robinson corresponded with Deming, the writer and political activist, in the years after Ray Robinson's disappearance.
In a letter dated Dec. 29, 1974, Cheryl Robinson wrote that she had been told Ray Robinson backpacked into Wounded Knee at night and was later shot for not following an order to immediately report to one of AIM's co-founders.
"He was sitting on somebody's porch eating oatmeal. An Indian dude came up, ordered him to go see Dennis Banks. Ray said, 'In a minute - I'm eating my oatmeal - I'll go when I've finished.' The Indian dude got affronted by Ray's lack of servility. The Indian shot Ray dead," Cheryl Robinson wrote.
Banks did not return requests for an interview.
One of the people who said he was at Wounded Knee offers a different version of what happened.
Ray Robinson was at Wounded Knee no more than a week but quickly got a reputation as unwilling to take part in the fight, said Richard Two Elk of Denver. On the day he was shot, Robinson had again refused to pick up a gun, Two Elk said.
"He constantly annoyed us and got on our nerves in the bunker," Two Elk said.
"When a firefight broke out, he wouldn't go out into the bunker. He would eat what little food we had," he said. "There was no food so everyone was trying not to eat and this guy was eating freely all the time."
Shot in leg
Two Elk said he saw someone shoot Robinson in the leg but did not see him die or know what happened to him after he was taken away. He said he initially thought AIM leaders had him taken to a hospital for treatment of his injury and later found out what happened.
"What we know is the guy died. The guy got shot. But I didn't see a fatal injury. I didn't see him die. I didn't know what happened to him. There's some discussion that after he was shot, he may have been shot again or something else might have caused his death," Two Elk said.
Ray Robinson's leg wound didn't appear to be planned, he said.
"I think it was just a reaction. He jumped up and he had a knife and started moving and someone reacted. It happened in a couple of seconds. I think it was someone's gut level reaction in the middle of a firefight," Two Elk said.
Another account outlined in a Feb. 1, 1975, letter from Deming to Cheryl Robinson suggests another source said Ray Robinson was shot after being loud and trying to lead AIM members.
"And the Indians didn't appreciate it. And told him so. And Ray pulled a gun," Deming wrote. "And the Indian he'd pulled a gun on shot him in the leg. Not with intention to kill or maim ... but intention simply to get the situation under control. The wound was not a bad one."
The source said Ray Robinson was taken to a hospital and not seen again, Deming wrote.
In an earlier letter, on Dec. 29, 1974, to Deming, Cheryl Robinson wrote: "I'm almost sure that he wasn't wounded in the leg first, then offed later."
Either scenario - that he was shot for insubordination or in self-defense - makes the possibility of criminal charges less likely because of the expired statute of limitations on all crimes other than premeditated murder.
Cheryl Robinson and Two Elk agree that Ray Robinson was out of place because he thought blacks and Indians wanted the same thing.
"The guy was playing to a different tune and it wasn't like he thought. It wasn't like civil rights. Indian country is Indian country. It's no man's land," Two Elk said.
"One of the things that was quite apparent was the conflict and the clash of the two concepts of social rights-civil rights and Indian rights. Indian rights are in a whole different context. They (blacks) were coming from rights within the system and Indian rights was about sovereignty and independent nations."
Besides the possibility of Ray Robinson being killed because he annoyed AIM members, wouldn't pick up a gun or fear that he was a government informant, one other possible motive is racism, according to Cheryl Robinson's letters to Deming.
In the Dec. 29, 1974, letter, she wrote: "The Plains Indians are very anti-black."
Now, she believes her husband didn't understand the history that some Indians have with blacks.
"He thought there needed to be unity between black people and Indians. But he didn't understand the backdrop," Cheryl Robinson said. "He didn't do his homework."
She said in a 1974 letter that a black woman who went with Ray Robinson to Wounded Knee said they tried to "fit in" and help "but it was made plain to us we were not wanted."
The woman and two other people returned to Alabama but Ray Robinson stayed, Cheryl Robinson wrote.
"But Barbara," she wrote to Deming, "I keep asking myself - even if Ray was ghetto-loud and freedom high - and even let's say they felt he was obnoxious, is that reason to kill him?"
Cheryl Robinson no longer fights for civil rights. But she still wonders what happened to her partner in the effort.
She works as a nurse, is getting her master's degree in anthropology and spends time with her three children and 12 grandchildren. Photos of them line the shelves of her home.
They'd like answers.
"I would be in heaven if I had his remains. If we could be 100 percent sure he's been dead all this time and give him a proper burial," said Desiree Mark, 37.
She, like her mother and sister, aren't as interested in revenge as they are finding out how Ray Robinson was killed and why.
"We don't know," said Kamara, 32. "We've never had that closure." "It's a terrible thing to say you haven't grieved for 30 years. But I think we need to," added Cheryl Robinson.
Although she and her daughters freely discussed Ray Robinson's life, the couple's only son, 34-year-old J. Marc Robinson, politely greeted a reporter briefly and then left.
"You know the stages of grief?" Kamara asks later. "He's stuck on anger."