Richmond’s Randall Robinson reshaped American’s foreign policy, forced change in South Africa

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/30/2023, 6 p.m.
Seared by the segregation he grew up with in Richmond, Randall Maurice Robinson championed change in American policies toward African …
Mr. Robinson

Seared by the segregation he grew up with in Richmond, Randall Maurice Robinson championed change in American policies toward African and the Caribbean nations that he considered unjust and undergirded by racial bias.

Artist, author, educator and lawyer, Mr. Robinson was best known for his leadership in the successful fight in the 1980s to end

U.S. support for the harsh regime of racial oppression in South Africa known as apartheid – ultimately leading to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and election as that country’s president.

Reviving the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, he led demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, creating wide support and a mass movement that led Congress to impose sanctions that forced change in South Africa.

As a founder and executive director of the lobbying and policy group TransAfrica for 24 years, he also was a leading voice of support for democracy in Haiti and undertook a 27-day hunger strike in a bid to push President Bill Clinton into temporarily admitting Black Haitian refugees on the same basis as lighter-skinned Cubans.

Described as an unwavering foe of injustice and advocate for human rights, he also pressed for reparations for Black Americans, while also being a sharp critic of the Black community’s dismal record in addressing the crime and poverty in its midst.

Still an unsung hero in his hometown, Mr. Robinson’s instrumental role reshaping American’s foreign policy is being remembered following his death in St. Kitts, a independent Caribbean island east of Puerto Rico, where he had made his home since 2001.

Mr. Robinson died Friday, March 24, 2023, of pneumonia, according to Hazel Ross-Robinson, his second wife and a native of the island. He was 81.

Former Richmond City Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin lauded his old friend for helping to dispel American myths about Africa and raise the awareness of Americans, particularly Black Americans, about the Motherland.

“He was a key architect in promoting a positive understanding,” Mr. El-Amin said, that boosted Black interest in visiting the continent.

Janine Y. Bell, founder and artistic director of the Richmond-based Elegba Folklore Society that highlights the links between Africa and America, said that Mr. Robinson enabled Americans to understand “the crucial importance of the African continent” as the birthplace of humanity and increased understanding of the influence and contributions that the African disapora has had on the West.

Mr. Robinson was one four children of two teachers, Armstrong High School coaching legend Maxie C. Robinson and Doris Robinson Griffin. His late brother, Max Robinson, became the first Black news anchor for a national broadcast network. One of his sisters, Jewell Robinson Sheppard, is an award-winning actress, and the other, the Rev. Jean Robinson-Casey, pastors a church in Reston.

Mr. Robinson followed a winding road to his influential role in American policy after graduating from Armstrong. He first earned a basketball scholarship to Norfolk State University, but had to leave in 1959 after being drafted into the U.S. Army.

Returning to Richmond, he completed his undergraduate studies at Virginia Union University. A top scholar, he went on to

earn a law degree at Harvard University in 1970 and began his connection with Africa after he spent six months in Tanzania on a Ford Foundation fellowship before graduation.

He started out as a legal aid lawyer in Boston, ran a community service center for several years, then started working on African policy after he moved to Washington to work for two founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, U.S. Rep. William L. Clay Sr. of Missouri and U.S. Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. of Michigan.

Along with organizing the first forum on Africa for the CBC, Mr. Robinson arranged for a congressional delegate to visit Africa, including a stop in South Africa that proved life-changing.

“I remember being so, so angry,” Mr. Robinson recalled after facing signs barring him from using airport bathrooms because of his skin color. “The scab had been pulled off an old wound. But this was not only a segregated state, it was a police state.”

After returning to Washington, Mr. Robinson, with the support of Rep. Diggs, launched TransAfrica as a lobbying and policy operation and used it as a platform to initially challenge President Ford’s policy of tolerance toward white dictators and autocrats.

Seeking to build support, Mr. Robinson launched a research and policy arm to expand arm of TransAfrica.

“You don’t change policy under the presumption that you must have a majority opinion on your side,” he once told a reporter. “In the final analysis, you need to organize a critical mass of people, which is not necessarily the majority of the Black community.”

In 1984, Mr. Robinson launched the Free South Africa Movement to mobilize groups and individuals opposed to South Africa’s apartheid and in December of that year began holding protests in front of the South African Embassy, despite courting arrest by Washington. police for trespassing.

Undeterred, he told supporters, “We will be here in the cold. We will be here in the snow. We will be here in the sleet and rain, day in, day out, week in, week out, month after month. We will not leave until our demands are met.” The movement’s demands included the release of

Mr. Mandela, an anti-apartheid leader who had been imprisoned more than 20 years earlier, and other changes to create a more open society there.

By 1986, the movement had created enough pressure to enable the U.S. Senate to pass the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 over then President Reagan’s veto, forcing the government to imposed crippling sanctions on South Africa that ultimately led to Mr. Mandela’s release in 1990 and his 1964 election as the first Black president of that country.

In 1994, Mr. Robinson undertook the hunger strike in a bid to force President Clinton to end the policy of stopping boats full of Haitian refugees and returning them. President Clinton never acknowledged Mr. Robinson’s role, but changed the policy.

Mr. Robinson later authored “An Unbroken Agony” on his ordeal and the Haitian experience.

As TransAfrica’s leader, he also focused on policy changes for Ethiopia, Kenya, the Congo and Malawi.

He amplified the reparations debate in 2000 with his book, “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” and followed that with “Reckoning: What Blacks Owe Each Other” that focused on crime, poverty and the prison system, and urged Black Americans to focus on social and economic success.

In 2001, declaring America to be “a huge fraud, clad in narcissistic conceit ... and feeling unneeded of any self-examination or responsibility to right past wrongs of which it notices none,” he left TransAfrica and moved with his wife to St. Kitts. The organization, chaired by actor Danny Glover, continues its advocacy work.

In 2004, he wrote about his self-imposed exile in “Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land.” He also is the author of “Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America” and two works of fiction, “The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay: A Novel,” and his most recent, “Makeda.”

While he mostly stayed out of the country, he taught at Penn State University’s law school since 2008.

Survivors include his three children, Khalea Ross Robinson, Anike Robinson and Jabari Robinson, along with his wife and two sisters.