History

The Black Journalist Who Confronted David Duke at a Pivotal Moment

During a televised debate days before Louisiana’s election for governor, Duke faced questions about his “diabolical, evil, vile mentality.”

David Duke carrying two little styrofoam cups. A radio studio is seen, along with people milling about, behind him.
David Duke ahead of a radio interview in New Orleans, on Nov. 5, 1991. Bill Haber/AP

This article is adapted from “A Concerned Citizen,” the final episode of Slow Burn’s fourth season.

The second televised debate between Edwin Edwards and David Duke took place on Nov. 6, 1991. That was 10 days before the runoff election to decide the next governor of Louisiana. Duke and Edwards sat onstage in a TV studio with a moderator between them. Four political journalists had been brought in to ask them questions. One of them was Norman Robinson.

Robinson was one of New Orleans’ best known and most respected news anchors. He was also a Black man. He’d considered, for a moment, not taking the debate assignment. But Robinson decided that he owed it to himself to meet David Duke head on.

I considered it in the final analysis to be a challenge,” he told me, “to confront him and compartmentalize my anger.”

Robinson had been suppressing his rage for as long as he could remember. He was 4 years old in 1955, when Emmett Till was lynched in his home state of Mississippi. He was 5 when he saw the photos of Till’s disfigured body, and when his parents told him, “That’s what some white folks will do to you.”

He was living in Mobile, Alabama, eight years later, when Klansmen bombed a church in Birmingham, murdering four Black girls who were just about his age.

It was an emotional time in our household. We were stunned. We were almost immobilized physically and mentally,” Robinson said. “I think it’s something that I tried to bury. But, you know, it’s still there. It never goes away.”

For Robinson, David Duke’s rise in Louisiana felt like a scab getting pulled off an old wound. And he was done hiding his injuries. At the debate, he made his question to Duke a personal one:

Mr. Duke, I have to tell you, I am a very concerned citizen. I am a journalist. But first and foremost, I am a concerned citizen. And as a minority who has heard you say some very excoriating and diabolical things about minorities, about Blacks, about Jews, about Hispanics, I am scared, sir.

By challenging Duke head-on, Robinson was making himself vulnerable. “I wanted him to see me as a human being, not as some journalist,” he explained.

But Robinson was a journalist. And on that stage, he showed that he could be both things at once: a human being who felt threatened by Duke and a reporter who could expose who Duke really was.

Robinson had prepared for the debate using research from the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. He chose to focus on Duke’s own words—statements he’d made to the graduate student Evelyn Rich in 1986, and in his televised debate with Jesse Jackson in 1977. Robinson didn’t get his question approved in advance. And it wasn’t until he was sitting in that studio, watching Duke deflect and evade, that he decided exactly how he wanted to phrase it.

Norman Robinson: I’ve heard you say that Jews deserve to be in the ash bin of history. I’ve heard you say that horses contributed more to the building of America than Blacks did. Given that kind of past, sir, given that kind of diabolical, evil, vile mentality—

Moderator: Mr. Robinson—

Norman Robinson: Convince me.

Moderator: Your question.

Norman Robinson: Convince me, sir, and other minorities like me, why they should entrust their lives and the lives of their children to you.

When the camera cut away from Robinson, he was staring straight at David Duke. When Duke appeared on screen, he cast his eyes downward before he began to speak.

Mr. Robinson, I don’t think there’s a human being on this earth or in this state who hasn’t been at some time intolerant in their life. And I think that’s true of white people. I think it’s true of Black people. I think it’s true of everybody at one time or another. You know, I regret some of the things that I’ve said in my life. I have been too intolerant at times. No question about that. But that’s not how I live today. And I hope that’s not the way you live today. Maybe you’ve never said something in your life that could be taken as racially biased or concerned. Everybody’s said things.

Pressed by Robinson, Duke said he repudiated the Klan and any other racist or intolerant organization. This is how their exchange ended:

Duke: There’s a lot of racism that exists in all communities, not just the white community. There’s violence in our streets every day directed against white people as well as the other way around.

Robinson: As well as Black people? As well as against Black people?

Duke: Look, Mr. Robinson, I don’t think you’re really being fair with me.

Robinson: I don’t think you’re really being honest, sir.

Duke: Well, you’re not. You know, you’re doing the debate here, aren’t you? You’re not even asking questions. You’re here to put me down, and that’s your prerogative.

Robinson feels he succeeded in creating a human connection with Duke in the moment. “That’s what made it so significant—that we got to the bottom of what it is that needed to be discussed,” he said.

The television station that broadcast the debate got 150 calls after it was over. Most of them were from viewers complaining about Norman Robinson. The Times-Picayune published letters chiding the TV anchor for his “extremely unprofessional” behavior and his “lack of objectivity.” And then there’s the mail that Robinson himself got:

One letter said, ‘We thought you were intelligent. We thought you were of the same mind as us. Now we see your true colors. You’re just a n––––r with a suit.’ ”

For months, Robinson didn’t go anywhere but work and home, and he started carrying a pistol. But he never regretted doing what he did.

Much of the campaign against Duke warned voters about the second-order effects of a Duke governorship—how Louisiana’s reputation and economy might suffer because of how Duke was perceived. But in the debate, Robinson called out Duke’s bigotry directly and unashamedly.

It was cathartic for me, in a sense. I got to confront a lot of demons that I’d been suppressing for a long time. And I think it was liberating for a lot of people,” Robinson said.

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