Solving The Mystery Of A Black Activist's Disappearance
In the spring of 1973, Ray Robinson left his wife and three young children in Bogue Chitto, Alabama to support the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
He never came home.
Now, more than 40 years after his disappearance, his widow and grown daughters, who live in Detroit, are closer to knowing what happened. Newly released FBI documents say Robinson was killed there, and suggest members of the American Indian Movement covered up the crime.
But Robinson’s widow and children still don’t have what they want most: his remains returned to them, so they can bury him close to home.
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Forty-one years ago, an armed showdown between Native Americans and the federal government at Wounded Knee, S.D., was drawing to a close. The 71 day anti-corruption protest by members of the American Indian Movement and Oglala Sioux ended on May 8, 1973 when the militants surrendered to federal agents. Two American Indian Movement members were killed during the confrontation along with a black civil rights activist named Ray Robinson, who had gone to Wounded Knee to join the protest.
Well, recently released FBI documents claim that American Indian Movement members that were killed or had killed Robinson and covered up the crime. Meanwhile, Robinson's family still doesn't have what it wants most: the remains of Ray Robinson returned to them so they can bury him close to home. From the HERE AND NOW Contributor's Network, Michigan Radio's Sarah Hulett has the story.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A group of American Indians has taken over the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The Indians are from an extremely militant group called AIM.
SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: The standoff between the American Indian Movement and federal law enforcement was big news on NBC and everywhere else when Cheryl Buswell-Robinson's husband told her what he planned to do.
CHERYL BUSWELL-ROBINSON: And Ray said, okay, this would be a good chance to unite the Indian movement and the black movement.
HULETT: Buswell-Robinson lives in Detroit now, but back then she and her family were living in Alabama where they'd started a free clinic and ran a small farm. It was called the People's Farm, and they supplied food for the Black Panther Party Breakfast Program.
BUSWELL-ROBINSON: And I begged them. I said, please don't. We've got to get crops in the ground. It's coming to be spring. We won't eat this fall or winter if we don't get the crops in the ground. And he said, no, no, I'm going up there. It's important that we unite.
HULETT: So Buswell-Robinson says her husband went to Wounded Knee as the occupation stretched into spring. About 200 American Indians had seized the small town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They were protesting what they thought as corrupt tribal leadership and they were also demanding that the U.S. government honor its treaties with the tribes. And the location was also symbolic. It was the sight of a U.S. Army massacre of Lakota Indians in 1890. The occupation ended when the government took control of the town as reported by ABC News.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The siege at Wounded Knee ended today, 71 days after began, as militants...
HULETT: Days passed, then weeks. Robinson still hadn't returned to Alabama. He never would.
BUSWELL-ROBINSON: There's a long history of interactions between black folks and Indians. Some of it hasn't been that positive, but Ray went into a situation that he thought that commitment to the struggle would overcome any obstacles or any misunderstandings. Well, it didn't.
HULETT: Buswell-Robinson doesn't know exactly what happened to her husband Ray. The FBI file released to the family through a Freedom of Information lawsuit includes interviews with several cooperating witnesses who say Ray Robinson was shot in the knee inside one of the makeshift bunkers.
What happened next is less clear, but it appears he bled to death and was later buried close by. Why he was shot is also unclear.
MICHAEL KUZMA: What we want to know is what happened to Ray Robinson, where are his remains buried?
HULETT: Michael Kuzma is an attorney who sued the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of Ray Robinson's family to get his FBI file.
KUZMA: And it's my belief that there was one or more informants in the bunker when Ray Robinson was shot and killed. And I think, if my theory is correct, the American people have a right to know what the FBI did in this case.
PAUL DEMAIN: I don't think the FBI played any role in the death of Perry Ray Robinson.
HULETT: Paul DeMain is CEO of Indian Country Communications, which publishes news from Indian country. He spent two decades investigating what happened on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s.
DEMAIN: I think that was an internal murder of an alleged informant. He wouldn't pick up a gun in Wounded Knee. We've been told he was loud. Frankly, he was described to me as a loud-mouth (bleep) who wasn't part of the game plan in Wounded Knee, wouldn't pick up a gun, and therefore became suspected of being an informer.
HULETT: But DeMain says he doesn't doubt there were AIM members who were feeding information to the FBI. And he says, that could be why, after 40 years, no one's been prosecuted in the Robinson case.
DEMAIN: That if they did go after some leadership members, that there would be revelations in regards to FBI complicity that would be exposed during that time period.
HULETT: DeMain says the American Indian community needs to do the right thing in the Robinson case and get the family the answers it deserves.
DEMAIN: When I go to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, I says look at how atrocious the U.S. government can be toward Indians and look what they did. And then they turn around say, and you know what, American Indians can do the same thing to people, because they can shoot a black man and bury him here and they don't care about him because he is a black man.
HULETT: But AIM leaders have repeated claimed Ray Robinson was never at Wounded Knee.
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CLYDE BELLECOURT: Hello?
HULETT: Clyde Bellecourt is a co-founder of AIM and was at Wounded Knee in 1973. He says the first time he ever heard Ray Robinson's name was last fall at a seminar in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
BELLECOURT: And I met - who said she was his wife, a white woman.
HULETT: Cheryl, yeah.
BELLECOURT: Yeah. And that's the first time I ever heard about it. There was no Ray Robinson when I was there.
HULETT: These denials are frustrating for the Robinson family, but Ray Robinson's widow and daughters say they're not really interested in finger pointing or culpability or prosecution.
DESIREE MARKS: I don't need the why, who, I don't need any of that.
HULETT: Desiree Marks is Ray Robinson's oldest child. She was six years old when her dad went missing.
MARKS: I understand that the time and that it was a struggle of the people. And in struggles, mistakes get made. And it's not my goal to second guess mistakes that were made at that time. I just want his remains.
HULETT: Marks and her family hope to inch closer to that goal through their Freedom of Information lawsuit. The file that was released by the FBI was heavily redacted with names and even entire documents missing. A federal judge will ultimately decide whether any additional information should be disclosed. An FBI spokesman says the Ray Robinson case is closed. But the U.S. Attorney's office in South Dakota is re-examining dozens of unsolved deaths on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The review includes cases that date back to the 1970s when political violence on the reservation reached a bloody peak. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Sarah Hulett.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.