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Detroit family inches toward answers in mystery of civil rights activist’s disappearance

In the spring of 1973, Ray Robinson left his wife and three young children in BogueChitto, 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.

“A good chance to unite”

Ray Robinson disappeared after traveling to Wounded Knee, SD in 1973.

Ray Robinson was a civil rights activist. He met the woman who would be his wife, Cheryl Buswell, at an anti-war rally in Madison, Wisconsin. They moved to Alabama where they ran a small farm, and set up a free clinic. They taught people to take their blood pressure, and about nutrition. “Basically trying to teach people to empower their lives,” says Cheryl Buswell-Robinson.

Ray Robinson was involved with several anti-war and civil rights groups, including Vietnam Veterans Against the War. While he was attending a VVAW meeting, word came that the American Indians who were occupying Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, could use some assistance.

"And Ray said, ‘OK, this would be a good chance to unite the Indian movement and the black movement,’” Buswell-Robinson recalled.

So Ray Robinson and three others from Alabama headed to South Dakota, as the occupation of Wounded Knee stretched into the spring. Members of the militant American Indian Movement had seized the small town to protest what they saw as corrupt tribal leadership. They were also demanding that the U.S. government honor its treaties with American Indian tribes. The location was symbolic, too. It was the site of a U.S. Army massacre of Lakota Indians in 1890.   

The siege ended in the spring of 1973, after 71 days.

"Ray went into a situation that he thought commitment to the struggle would overcome any obstacles or any misunderstandings. Well, it didn't."

Weeks passed. Robinson still hadn’t returned to Alabama. He never would.

“There’s a long history of interactions between black folks and Indians. Some of it hasn’t been that positive,” said Buswell-Robinson. “Ray went into a situation that he thought commitment to the struggle would overcome any obstacles or any misunderstandings. Well, it didn’t.”

Some answers, and a lot of questions

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.

“What we want to know is what happened to Ray Robinson. Where are his remains buried,” said Michael Kuzma, an attorney who sued the U.S. Department of Justice to get Ray Robinson’s FBI file. “It’s my belief that there were one or more informants in the bunker when Ray Robinson was shot and killed. And I think the American people have a right to know what the FBI did in this case.”

The file that was released was heavily redacted. A court hearing is scheduled for a week from today at which the government is expected to explain why it’s withholding the information.

"What we want to know is what happened to Ray Robinson. Where are his remains buried."

FBI spokesman Kyle Loven says the Ray Robinson case is closed, although he says it could be reopened if new information comes to light. The U.S. Attorney’s office in South Dakota is also re-examining dozens of unsolved deaths on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Paul DeMain, who spent two decades investigating what happened on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s, does not believe the FBI had any role in Robinson’s death.

“I think that was an internal murder of an alleged informant,” said DeMain, who is the CEO of Indian Country Communications. DeMain says the FBI documents and his own extensive interviews suggest Robinson was killed because he refused to pick up a gun and participate in the fighting at Wounded Knee. “Frankly, he was described to me as a loud-mouthed n----- who wasn’t part of the game plan … and therefore became suspected of being an informer.”

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 41 years, no one has been prosecuted in the Robinson case.

Credit Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Tamara Kamara, Robinson's youngest child, and widow, Cheryl Buswell-Robinson.

“I’ve come to believe there’s enough evidence that there are one or two individuals who may have been protected, and that’s part of the reason that prosecution at the leadership levels has never come to fruition,” DeMain said. “That if they did go after some leadership members, there would be revelations in regards to FBI complicity that would be exposed during that time period.”

DeMain says the American Indian community needs to do the right thing in the Robinson case, and get the family the answers they deserve.

“When I go to Wounded Knee, South Dakota I say, ‘look at how atrocious the U.S. government can be toward American Indians,’” he said. “And then I turn around and say, ‘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’s a black man.’”

“In struggles, mistakes get made.”

AIM leaders who were at Wounded Knee have repeatedly claimed Ray Robinson was never there. AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt says he spent 51 days at Wounded Knee, and the first time he ever heard Ray Robinson’s name was last fall, when Robinson’s widow approached him at a seminar in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

That’s the first time I ever heard about it,” Bellecourt said. “There was no Ray Robinson when I was there.”

Bellecourt says if law enforcement has information that implicates AIM in Robinson’s death, it should prosecute.

“If they have all the documents and information, they ought to submit them to a grand jury and make some charges,” he said.

But the Robinson family itself isn’t really interested in finger-pointing, or culpability, or prosecution.

“I don’t need the why, who. I don’t need any of that,” said Desiree Marks, Ray Robinson’s oldest child. “I understand the time and what was going on, 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.”

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.