Randall Robinson (born 1941) is an internationally recognized author and foreign policy activist. In 1977, he founded TransAfrica—a lobbying group dedicated to promoting "enlightened and progressive" U.S. foreign policy toward countries in Africa and the Caribbean. As president of TransAfrica, Robinson led the U.S. campaign to bring democracy to South Africa, putting an end to that county's apartheid policies.
Randall Robinson, the son of Maxie Robinson and his wife Doris, was born on July 6, 1941, in Richmond, Virginia. He spent the first 15 years of his life in a ground-floor flat in the African American section of Richmond. Maxie Robinson taught history by day and coached athletics in the evening, while Doris was a full-time homemaker. Robinson's parents were both college graduates. 26-year-old Maxie Robinson and 18-year-old Doris Jones had met in Richmond, Virginia, at Virginia Union University. Doris was attending the school as preparation for a teaching career. Maxie was a star athlete. They married on August 31, 1936.
Robinson states in his autobiography, Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America, that his grandmother raised his father to be "a highly principled teetotaler, unaccustomed to the social domesticities of family life and with small gift for intimacy." Robinson's paternal grandparents had married in Richmond, Virginia, when they were still adolescents. They divorced shortly after Maxie was born. Maxie's father subsequently left for Baltimore where he remarried and lost contact with his son. Robinson's grandmother, meanwhile, remarried a recovered alcoholic who worked for the railroad.
According to Robinson, his mother, born Doris Alma Jones, was raised in Portsmouth, Virginia, in a large, white two-story house. She was the first of seven children born to Nathan and Jeanie Jones. Robinson wrote of his family heritage in Defending the Spirit, "Mama's family was deep and eternal. Daddy's was small and patched."
One of four children born to Maxie and Doris Robinson, Robinson was surrounded by books when he was growing up. His older sister, Jewell, was an excellent student and eventually won a scholarship that allowed her to become the first African American student to attend Goucher College. Robinson's brother, Maxie Jr., who won an even more lucrative scholarship, became the nation's first African American news anchor on ABC's World News Tonight. Robinson, however, was more of a late bloomer and headed off for Norfolk State College on a basketball scholarship, later transferring to Virginia Union University. His younger sister, Jeanie, would eventually become an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C.
On May 17, 1954, 13-year-old Robinson was sitting in his science class when his teacher announced that the Supreme Court had just ruled that public school segregation violated the U.S. Constitution. Robinson later said he never expected the ruling—but in any case, he later pointed out, forty-three years after the decision was handed down, Richmond's schools were still as segregated as they were in 1954.
Robinson claims he never met a white person until he was drafted into the Army in 1963. Following his discharge from the service—which came just as the United States was beginning to build up its forces in Vietnam—he re-enrolled in Virginia Union University.
Harvard Law School
In the fall of 1967, following his graduation from Virginia Union, Robinson was admitted to Harvard University Law School. But after one year of Harvard, Robinson says he knew he would never practice law. He would nevertheless go on to pass the Massachusetts bar exam.
In late summer 1970, Robinson left for Tanzania. By then his first marriage was severely strained, and, though it would continue for another seventeen years, Robinson traces its eventual disintegration to his marrying before he really knew himself. Meanwhile, in Tanazania, he found a country riddled with problems. He concluded, "I could best serve Africa by going home to America, for America had become a substantial contributor to Africa's problems… . The United States was doing Africa a terrible disservice and African-Americans, in general, were none the wiser," Robinson later wrote in Defending the Spirit.
In 1971, Robinson was hired by the Boston Legal Assistance Project (BLAP) to provide legal representation in civil and juvenile court matters to the poor. But after he made the tactical mistake of demanding that the BLAP bring in African American leadership, he was fired. Robinson wrote in Defending the Spirit, "My legal career, after less than a year, had mercifully come to an end."
From 1972 to 1974, Robinson worked for the Roxbury Multi-Service Center as a community organizer. Among his first assignments was to put together a campaign against Gulf Oil in protest of that company's support of Portuguese presence in Africa. In the campaign, Robinson targeted Harvard University for its holdings of Gulf Oil stock.
Robinson worked as an administrative assistant to Congressman Charles C. Diggs from 1976 until Diggs was forced to resign from Congress prior to being sent to prison for graft in 1978. Shortly thereafter, in 1977, Robinson opened an office for an organization he called TransAfrica in a made-over apartment in Washington, D.C. Trans-Africa's two-person staff consisted of Robinson as executive director and Dolores Clemons as his assistant.
TransAfrica's immediate agenda was to change American policy toward South Africa. The United States was at the time still sympathetic to white rule in South Africa. Robinson wrote in his autobiography, "Americans had to be made aware of all the needless hurt that had been caused in their name. African-Americans had to be made to understand that this American policy affront to Africa was an insult to them as well." Toward this end, Robinson testified before Congress and even joined Senator George McGovern in a debate with two U.S. senators over U.S. policy in South Africa.
Robinson faced criticism from some U.S. African Americans that there were domestic racial problems that needed to be addressed before America looked to correct apartheid abuses overseas. But Robinson countered that domestic and foreign policy issues need not be addressed separately.
In 1981, a disgruntled employee of the U.S. State Department handed over to Robinson a sheaf of classified documents outlying U.S. support of white-ruled South Africa. Robinson in turn turned the documents over to a writer for the Washington Post. On May 29, 1981, the story hit the front pages of that newspaper. A year later, Robinson leaked to the Washington Post a classified State Department memo describing South Africa's intention to obtain a new loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Robinson met his second—and current—wife, Hazel, about this time. She was an international banking analyst who had moved to Washington to volunteer her knowledge of economic affairs in the Caribbean to TransAfrica. They were married in 1987.
By 1989, with the election of F. W. deKlerk as South Africa's leader and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison the next year, Robinson was allowing himself to believe that democracy would ultimately prevail in South Africa. Wrote Robinson in Defending the Spirit, "I had marched, testified, written, orated, debated, petitioned, proselytized, and committed repeated acts of civil disobedience… . We had done everything seemly and imaginable in our efforts to turn the United States onto a humane course and keep it there."
Ironically, after coming to power, South Africa's black African National Congress (ANC) virtually cut off all ties to TransAfrica. According to Robinson, the ANC has preferred to work with "the American Establishment and its multinational corporations." Robinson feels this policy may ultimately be self-defeating, given that American political parties come in and out of power with unpredictable frequency.
More recently, Robinson undertook a twenty-seven-day hunger strike in support of democratic reforms in Haiti and in opposition to U.S. policy against accepting Haitian refugees. Partly as a result, the U.S. in 1994 organized a multinational campaign to return Haiti's first democratically elected government to power, after it had been overthrown. Robinson also went on record as opposing the Mengistu government in Ethiopia and corruption in Nigeria. He also fought attempts by the U.S. to end Caribbean access to Europe's banana markets.
In The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2000), Robinson argued that the United States owes major reparations to the descendants of African American slaves. He told Black Issues in Higher Education in 2001, "It is not complicated and difficult to argue that when you expropriate the value of a people's labor for 246 years of slavery, and follow that with a century of formal discrimination based on race with government involvement that those who were in the beneficiary group stood to gain from the expropriation of the value of that labor. And those who had the value of their hire stolen from them stood to suffer, hence this enormous economic gap yawning still and static, separating blacks from whites in the United States and throughout the world."
Robinson believes the reason that most Americans, whether they be black or white, oppose reparations is that they are uninformed. And for Robinson, that is the crux of the matter. He feels that the American citizenry is in a state of denial about the suffering that the United States has caused to people in the U.S. and in other parts of the world.
When Black Issues in Higher Education asked Robinson in 2001 how optimistic he was about the prospects of the reparations movement, he replied, "I'm very optimistic. I put no clock on these things, you see. I don't know [if] it will happen in my lifetime in the same way I didn't know if apartheid would end in my lifetime… . But you fight pre pared to go the long term, and if your life won't cover the term of the struggle, then you hand off your progress to the next generation. Seen in that light, I'm extremely optimistic (reparations) will happen."
Robinson has been awarded nineteen honorary doctorates. His contributions to altering U.S. foreign policy have been recognized by the United Nations, the Congressional Black Caucus, Harvard University, the Essence Magazine Awards Show, the Martin Luther King Center for Non-violent
Change, the NAACP, and the Ebony Magazine Awards Show. He has also been named ABC-News Person of the Week. Robinson has appeared on ABC's Nightline, CBS's 60 Minutes, NBC's Today Show, CNN, C-Span, and other American television programs.
Robinson is the author of three books, Defending the Spirit, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, and The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe to Each Other. He has begun work on a fourth book, about the past and ongoing impact of U.S. foreign policy on English-speaking nations in the Caribbean. He makes his home on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts with his wife and daughter.
Robinson, Randall, Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America, Dutton, 1998.
"Fighting the good fight," Black Issues in Higher Education, November 8, 2001.
"Randall and Hazel Robinson: what's love got to do with it?" Essence, February 1991.