Frank James Robinson, educator and civil rights activist, was born in the rural church community of Antioch in Smith County, Texas, on June 5, 1902, to Charlie Robinson and Olevia (Stephens) Robinson. Frank’s mother died in 1914, and obligations to the family farm prevented him from completing grade school until 1923, when he enrolled in high school equivalency courses at Texas College in Tyler. He went on to attend Prairie View Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1931. While at Prairie View he met Dorothy Redus, a future principal and school administrator. They married in 1930.
In 1931 Robinson moved to Palestine, Anderson County, Texas, where he worked as an agent for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. During World War II he briefly relocated to San Francisco, California, where he worked in the defense industry. In 1948 he returned to Palestine and began a career as a teacher at a community school in nearby Butler, Texas, where he was eventually promoted to superintendent. Robinson became a powerful advocate for the small community of Butler, where he facilitated the building of new roads, the expansion of electrical service, and the construction of a science building for the school, which later became a community center.
Robinson decided to retire from academia in the early 1960s. He began a new career as a real estate investor and as a district supervisor for the American Woodmen Life Insurance Company, where he would eventually serve on the board of directors. A constant proponent of civil rights, he became very politically active and devoted much of the rest of his time to advocate for equal civil and voting rights for minorities in East Texas. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Robinson was determined that these laws be applied to all citizens even if it meant challenging the system. As such, he organized the Anderson County Civic League. This group not only encouraged Blacks to become involved in civil rights but focused on the need to get more Blacks elected to public office, especially in Anderson County, where Blacks constituted a quarter of the population, but where no African American had ever held public office. He also chaired the Anderson County Voter’s Committee and was heavily involved in the Progressive Voters League (see DEMOCRATIC PROGRESSIVE VOTERS LEAGUE), as well as the NAACP. In addition to these politically-active organizations, Robinson was a thirty-third-degree Mason, a leader in the Boy Scouts and 4-H Club, and a volunteer for a number of church youth groups.
Robinson’s largest victory as a political activist came after 1969, when the Anderson County commissioners court reapportioned the county’s four voter precincts. In the process, the county’s sizeable Black community was divided among three separate precincts, and Black voting power was severely hampered. To counter this action, in March 1970 Robinson organized the East Texas Leadership Forum, an organization which consisted of civic, labor, religious, social, and fraternal leaders in sixteen counties. The main objective of this organization was to get Blacks to pool their resources to seek redress in the court. To this end, he also elicited the organizational and financial support of the AFL-CIO, the ACLU, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and State Representative Paul Ragsdale of Dallas. With legal representation provided by ACLU attorney David R. Richards and with the help of the above organizations, Frank Robinson, Rodney Howard, and Timothy S. Smith filed suit against the Anderson County commissioners in December 1973. In the case Robinson v. Commissioner’s Court, Anderson County, the plaintiffs cited the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments and argued that the commissioner’s court engaged in redistricting in a deliberate attempt to dilute the Black vote. On March 15, 1974, district judge William Justice concurred with the plaintiff and stated that the existing precinct lines were racially gerrymandered and ordered the commissioners to redraw the lines. The county sought an appeal and contacted both the governor and the state attorney general, but the ruling was upheld in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in December 1974. Ultimately, the case caused Anderson County to change to a single member district voting system, which resulted in the election of the first Black official in the county’s history. Additionally, similar cases were filed in several other East Texas communities with similar results. In a word, Robinson‘s leadership changed the political landscape of not only Anderson County but all of East Texas.
Although successful with this case, Robinson did not stop. He continued to advocate and fight for laws that affected Blacks positively. In 1976 he filed a suit similar to that of the Anderson County commissioners that would require Palestine city commissioners to be elected from individual districts. He also organized the East Texas Project, a group that brought similar suits in other East Texas cities. However, on October 13, 1976, Robinson was killed in his home by a single gunshot wound to the head. His death was ruled a suicide despite considerable evidence to the contrary, and many claimed that it was a political assassination related to his work with the East Texas Project.
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Austin American-Statesman, October 15, 19, 1976. David Richards, Once Upon a Time in Texas: A Liberal in the Lone Star State (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002). Corey Roberts, “Frank J. Robinson and the Fight Against Racial Gerrymandering in Deep East Texas,” Texas Historian LXXIII (2012–13). Dorothy Redus Robinson, Interview by Cheri L. Wolfe, July 28, 1994, Institute of Texan Cultures Oral History Collection, University of Texas at San Antonio.
Activism and Social Reform
Politics and Government
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Irvine Epps and R. Matt Abigail,
“Robinson, Frank James,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed July 03, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
August 14, 2013
Most Recent Revision Date:
September 29, 2020
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: