No one doubts Ray Robinson is dead.
After all, it’s been 40 years since the black activist from Selma, Ala., a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, went missing.
He was last seen at Wounded Knee, S.D., where he had gone in April of 1973 to preach the importance of nonviolence and stand with American Indians in their fight against the federal government.
Robinson never made it home and, by all accounts, was murdered.
Even now, decades later, his widow and children, eager to have him brought home, wonder where he’s buried.
A new lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo seeks to answer that question.
“This may sound silly after all these years, but we just want to bury him,” said Tamara Kamara, one of his daughters who lives in Michigan. “We just want to know he’s gone and have a place to take my children and grandchildren and say this is where he’s buried.”
Robinson’s disappearance is, in many people’s eyes, one of America’s great unsolved murders.
It’s been the topic of books and newspaper stories and, four decades after he went missing, it’s now a national story with a Buffalo angle because of the two local lawyers who filed the family’s suit here.
“The family and the American people have a right to know what happened to Ray Robinson,” said Michael Kuzma, a Buffalo lawyer representing the family. “They have a right to know who murdered him and where he’s buried so they can bring him back home.”
Kuzma’s Freedom of Information suit in Buffalo federal court seeks information from the FBI and others on what happened to Robinson and, perhaps even more important, what happened to his body.
“We’ve come to the understanding that he’s dead and that he died inside Wounded Knee,” Kamara said. “The worst part is not knowing where he’s buried.”
At Wounded Knee
Robinson’s standing as a civil rights activist was well-established long before he traveled to South Dakota. He marched with King in Washington, D.C., in 1963 and was one of the demonstrators in 1968 who set up Resurrection City, an encampment on the Washington Mall designed to focus attention on America’s poor.
And yet, it wasn’t until his disappearance at Wounded Knee, a historic and some might say inspiring moment for Native Americans, that the world learned of his legacy.
The 71-day siege in 1973 was well under way when Robinson backpacked into the Pine Ridge reservation, where Wounded Knee was located. He told friends and family that he wanted to build a bridge between the black civil rights struggle and the American Indian movement.
What happened next is unclear and the subject of an often-ugly debate between Robinson’s family and members of the American Indian Movement, or AIM.
“He was there,” Steve Hendricks, author of “The Unquiet Grave,” a book on the FBI and the American Indian movement, said of Robinson. “In all probability, and I say this with 99 percent certainty, he was murdered at Wounded Knee by activists in AIM.”
By some accounts, Robinson’s message of nonviolence didn’t sit well with AIM’s leaders or members of the Oglala Lakota tribe that had seized control of the small town with the bloody history.
Until then, Wounded Knee was best known for the 1890 massacre of Lakota Indians, nearly half of them women and children, by a U.S. cavalry unit.
What started as an internal protest against the Oglala Lakota’s leadership, viewed by many as corrupt, quickly turned into an armed occupation directed at a federal government many thought had thumbed its nose at treaties between the two sides.
The often bloody stand-off resulted in the death of two Indians, the wounding of a federal agent and the rumored murder of others, including Robinson.
“This is a guy who was there on the side of justice,” said Daire Brian Irwin, a Buffalo lawyer representing the Robinson family. “This guy’s a hero, and only a few people know his story.”
Technically, the investigation into Robinson’s disappearance remains open.
An FBI official in Minneapolis confirmed as much but said he could not comment on the work its office was doing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“We have an ongoing case on Ray Robinson,” said Gregory Boosalis, a division counsel for the FBI.
While Irwin and Kuzma seek answers to the question “What happened to Ray Robinson?” there are FBI documents, now public, that suggest he was indeed there.
The documents are based on FBI interviews with witnesses who claim they were at Wounded Knee and saw or heard about two black people who were on the reservation.
Robinson’s widow, Cheryl Buswell-Robinson, has said the two were probably her husband and a black woman from Alabama who, unlike her husband, made it home after the occupation.
There also are a handful of accounts, none of them verified, as to what happened to Robinson.
In a 1974 letter to a friend, Buswell-Robinson wrote that she had heard her husband was shot for entering Pine Ridge without reporting to AIM leader Dennis Banks.
In still another account, AIM member Richard Two Elk told the Associated Press in 2004 that he saw someone shoot Robinson in the knees but didn’t see him die. He said Robinson had refused to pick up a gun.
Allegations of apathy
AIM’s leaders have repeatedly denied any role in Robinson’s death, and Banks, in an interview with the AP last year, said he doesn’t remember meeting Robinson or hearing anything about him until well after the siege had ended.
“Over the years,” Banks said at the time, “the Robinson name has popped up, and I’m not sure even who would have that information or where it was.”
Hendricks is convinced Robinson is buried at Wounded Knee and that he was most likely shot by AIM activists. He also thinks it’s possible AIM suspected Robinson was an FBI informant. “I come up with no other scenario,” he said. “We know there were FBI informants at Wounded Knee. That’s clear.”
Hendricks, the author, doesn’t believe Robinson was an informant, and Kamara said her mother has fought long and hard to refute those rumors. “That went against his core,” she said.
Attorneys Kuzma and Irwin agree, but they believe the FBI played a role in Robinson’s disappearance.
They wonder why the agency has failed, after 40 years, to come up with a single suspect while at the same time successfully investigating the killing of AIM activist Anna Mae Aquash at Pine Ridge two years later. Two people are currently serving life sentences for her murder.
“They’re not going after it,” added Hendricks. “They’re not even remotely interested, not even interviewing the most obvious witnesses.”
The suit filed by Kuzma and Irwin seeks information about the FBI’s investigation into Robinson’s disappearance and includes a letter from the agency indicating some of their records have been destroyed.
Why would the FBI destroy documents while an investigation is ongoing?
“It’s possible the referenced letter is talking about other cases that referenced Ray Robinson,” said Boosalis, the FBI official in Minneapolis. “To my knowledge, no documents in our case have been destroyed.”
While others speculate about who may have killed Robinson, his family is reluctant to point fingers at either the FBI or AIM.
They do believe, however, that both sides know where he’s buried.
“I’m hoping that AIM people can look in their hearts and realize this was a good man. This is a brother,” Buswell-Robinson told the AP in 2012. “This is a man that was willing to give his life for justice, for what’s right.”
Kamara says the same message applies to the FBI.
“I don’t think anything happened on that reservation that the FBI didn’t know about,” she said. “But at this point, there’s no anger. It’s been too long to carry around that type of anger.”
“We just want to bury him.”