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Randall Robinson – a troubadour for human rights

Randall Robinson – a troubadour for human rights
Randall Robinson in Brooklyn, New York, on 28 March 2008. (Photo: Jeffrey Ufberg / WireImage)

Like his intellectual forebear WEB Du Bois, Randall Robinson, who died on 25 March 2023 in St Kitts at the age of 81, was a practising pan-Africanist with a faith deeply steeped in international solidarity.

‘I am as much a Nigerian, a Haitian, a South African, a Kittitian, a Jamaican as I am an American. There shouldn’t be these partitions among the people of the Black world. I have lived that and I have committed myself to that in everything that I have done throughout my life,” Randall Robinson said in 2004.

On another occasion he described himself as a “pained victim of a stolen identity”.

Randall Robinson was one of the shining advocates of the civil and human rights movement in the second half of the 20th century. He was born and grew up in the US during the Jim Crow period when racial segregation thrived in de jure form in much of the South and assumed a de facto character in the North. He was 81 when he passed on last week in St Kitts, a small Caribbean nation.

By the time he achieved majority age in 1960, he had lived in a turbulent period marked by protests against wanton racial segregation laws in education, housing, health and voting that adversely affected people of colour.  

A bevy of organisations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress for Racial Equality, the National Urban League and the Black Panther Party filled every pore of those who suffered the indignity of Jim Crow laws. It was the heyday of formidable leadership exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr and many others.

These experiences left an indelible mark that defined the rest of Robinson’s life. In a 2005 interview with The Progressive Magazine Robinson declared that “the insult of segregation was searing and unforgettable”.

The collective impact of all this was epiphanous and spurred him to pursue his dream with a single-minded devotion.

After a short stint in the US Army (the irony of it is inescapable) he completed his bachelor’s degree at Virginia Union University, at the end of which he was admitted to Harvard Law School where he obtained his juris doctorate.

Synergy with South African activists

I first met Randall Robinson in the mid-1970s when I used to visit friends in the Boston area. There was Chris Nteta who was pursuing a doctorate in theology at Harvard Divinity School and was actively involved in the anti-apartheid struggle.

And there was Themba Vilakazi, who was behind the founding of the feisty Free South Africa Movement (later morphing into the South Africa Development Fund), the organisation in Boston that raised funds for the broad anti-apartheid movement at home, especially in the 1980s after PW Botha’s Rubicon speech and the banning of many organisations and prohibiting of financial support from outside South Africa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Remembering US anti-apartheid activist Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica

The relationship between Nteta, Vilakazi and Robinson was synergistic. I had admired his work ever since those days.

The epiphany Robinson had lit a flickering ember; the dream mushroomed, manifesting in multiple accomplishments. Foremost among these was the founding of the Free South Africa Movement which, in coalition with other anti-apartheid campaigns such as the American Committee on Africa, galvanised the US public.

He also served as executive director of TransAfrica, a lobby group that advocated for “diversity and equity in Africa and the Caribbean”. The journal Africa Forum was established in 1981 to extend the reach of TransAfrica’s activities.

Importantly, the Free South Africa Movement, along with its allies, organised demonstrations that mobilised thousands across the US that led to the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 over President Ronald Reagan’s objection. At last, sanctions were imposed against South Africa’s apartheid regime. It was a monumental victory.

His laser focus and boundless energy in 1985 led California Democrat Congressman Don Edwards to describe Robinson as “the most effective foreign policy catalyst in recent history”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Randall Robinson and the legacy of TransAfrica

Robinson’s profound insights and knowledge about human rights and social justice are chronicled in five legacy books: The Emancipation (1978); Defending the Spirit (1984); The Debt, which became a bestseller (2000); The Reckoning (2002); and Quitting America (2004).

In recognition of his gallant anti-apartheid efforts Robinson was awarded the Order of the Companions of Oliver R Tambo in 2012. It is an award given by the South African government to non-South Africans who distinguished themselves in the anti-apartheid Struggle.

Eventual injustice

Despite his remarkable accomplishments, Robinson never achieved the peace of mind he deserved. He followed the path of the eminent African-American sociologist, WEB Du Bois. After obtaining his PhD from Harvard in 1895, Du Bois co-founded the Niagara Movement and later the NAACP, organisations that were at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the US.   

Despite all the good service Du Bois rendered to the country of his birth, he was harassed and forced to leave the country and died in 1963 in Ghana where he was granted refuge by President Kwame Nkrumah. Sadly, the same injustices that led to Du Bois’s exile in 1963 still obtained in 2001 and caused Robinson to leave the US in exasperation.

Robinson died on 25 March 2023 in St Kitts, where he had been self-exiled since 2001.

So, his all-embracing, complex persona was captured in his acknowledgement of all the identities, amplified in his statement that “I never believed my place was necessarily physically in America”, but still “I am an American”.

Robinson was, like his intellectual forebear Du Bois, a practising pan-Africanist with a faith deeply steeped in international solidarity.

His daughter, Khalea Ross Robinson, summed it up after his passing: “He was an incredible father. He did a lot on behalf of people he hadn’t even met.” DM

Mokubung Nkomo is a retired academic who loathes unhygienic conditions, be they political or otherwise. He writes in his personal hygienic capacity.

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