There has been a swift outpouring of condolences in reaction to the news that renowned anti-apartheid icon Randall Robinson died last week at 81 years old.
Robinson, who was also a lawyer, author and the founder of TransAfrica, a nonprofit advocacy group that influenced U.S. foreign policy as it pertains to countries in the African diaspora, died Friday. Journalist Roland Martin tweeted on Saturday that Robinson’s sister confirmed the death in a text message that her brother “passed away yesterday at dawn.”
Robinson died in St. Kitts, the Caribbean island where he emigrated to in 2011 after becoming disenchanted with life in the United States.
Tributes have been pouring in across social media remembering Robinson fondly and noting how much of a loss the pro-Black humanitarian’s death is to the culture.
Robinson’s legal legacy
Robinson dedicated his life to uplifting Black people worldwide following his 1970 graduation from Harvard Law School, after which he was awarded a fellowship to work in Tanzania.
From 1972 to 1975 Robinson was community development division director of the Roxbury Massachusetts Multi-Service Center after which he moved to Washington, D.C., as staff assistant to William L. Clay, U.S. representative from Missouri. From 1976 to 1977, he served as a staff attorney for the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights.
It was Robinson’s legal and political training that would prove to be the springboard for his illustrious career of advocacy, which manifested itself in part in TransAfrica.
TransAfrica and Robinson’s anti-apartheid legacy
Notably, it was during his time at Harvard that Robinson first demonstrated his opposition to South African apartheid, a system that segregated citizens by race and spawned unthinkable discrimination.
After his return from Tanzania following his graduation from Harvard Law School, Robinson worked with the Congressional Black Caucus to place a spotlight on African and Black countries that he felt were being overlooked when it came to geopolitics. That work culminated in 1977 with the founding of TransAfrica, “the oldest and largest African American human rights and social justice advocacy organization promoting diversity and equity in the foreign policy arena and justice for the African World,” its mission statement says in part.
The group worked to address various global justice initiatives, like the drug war, and served as a broad educational resource center.
In an example of how Robinson fearlessly led TransAfrica, he famously took part in a four-day sit-in at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1984. Joined by U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Mary Frances Berry, then-Georgetown Law School professor and future Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and then-Congressman Walter Fauntroy, Robinson told the ambassador that the group wouldn’t leave the premises unless the South African apartheid government met their list of demands, including the release of political prisoner Nelson Mandela.
Decades later, Robinson recalled Mandela as “a special, very special, human being.”
Robinson worked as the president of TransAfrica until 2001.
Robinson also heavily advocated on behalf of Haiti and its citizens. That was especially true in 1994 when he waged a hunger strike in opposition to the U.S. policy toward the embattled Caribbean nation, for which he worked tirelessly in an effort to restore democracy.
His 27-day hunger strike is widely credited for helping to convince then-President Bill Clinton to return exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power following a military coup d’etat. While Clinton ultimately helped salvage Aristide’s presidency, he also continued a trade embargo imposed by his predecessor, President George H. W. Bush, that critics said severely impacted Haiti’s already hobbled economy.
“I have struggled and searched for ways to cause the administration to move in a constructive direction,” Robinson told the Washington Post about his plans for what would become a 27-day hunger strike in response to Clinton’s policy decisions. “The president and the secretary of state have listened to no one. I am doing the only thing I know to do.”
Robinson would ultimately go on to author the 2008 book, “An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President,” a deeply researched timeline of the nation’s existence dating back to 1492.
Randall authored The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks, a book arguing in favor of reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S.
Largely seen as one of the signature books on reparations, Robinson made the case for America to make amends for its societal wrongs to Black people by paying its “debt.”
“No race, no ethnic or religious group, has suffered so much over so long a span as blacks have, and do still, at the hands of those who benefited, with the connivance of the United States government, from slavery and the century of legalized American racial hostility that followed it,” Robinson wrote in The Debt. “It is a miracle that the victims–weary dark souls long shorn of a venerable and ancient identity–have survived at all, stymied as they are by the blocked roads to economic equality.”
Randall was considered a leader at the forefront of the movement for reparations, a position solidified in part by The Debt.
Robinson the expat
Born in Richmond, Virginia, on July 6, 1941, Robinson was educated in the capital city’s public school system before earning a basketball scholarship to Norfolk State University in 1959. His political activism began as a college student before he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Upon his return, Robinson enrolled in Virginia Union University in his hometown and earned his undergraduate degree in 1967.
Following his iconic career, Robinson practiced what he preached and left the U.S. to make a home in St. Kitts in 2004 following the release of his aptly titled book, Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from his Native Land.
“I tried to love America, its credos, its ideals, its promise, its process,” Robinson writes in the book. “I have tried to love America but America would not love the ancient, full African whole of me.”
St. Kitts is where Robinson’s wife was born.
In St. Kitts, Robinson discovers, America’s overriding fixation is no big deal: “Money is not the only thing and it is never the first thing.” He writes compellingly of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of St. Kitts in 1493 and of the subsequent extermination of the island’s indigenous Carib people. He also includes a long history of Haiti and its successful slave revolt. Black independence there and the relatively early end of slavery in the region (it was abolished in St. Kitts in 1834) served as a “psychic tonic.” Robinson writes: “The cultural, social, political, and economic successes of the Caribbean arguably qualify it as the healthiest quarter of the black world. It is our jewel to be relished and protected, small but exquisite, unboastful but luminous.”
NPR reported that Robinson’s funeral will be held in St. Kitts next month. A separate memorial has been planned for May in Washington, D.C.
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