Randall Robinson, a self-described “pained victim of stolen identity” raised in segregated Virginia who grew up to galvanize Americans against apartheid in South Africa and champion reparations for the descendants of slaves, died on Friday in Basseterre, on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, where he had lived in self-imposed exile from the United States for more than two decades. He was 81.
His wife, Hazel Ross-Robinson, said he died in a hospital from aspiration pneumonia.
Born into poverty in a rat-infested home without central heating, a telephone or a television set, Mr. Robinson was raised by loving parents, both teachers. He went on to win a basketball scholarship to college and to graduate from Harvard Law School. In 1978, his older brother, Max Robinson, became the first Black person to co-anchor the news on a national network, on “ABC World News Tonight.”
Mr. Robinson’s accomplishments were considerable — through sit-ins, hunger strikes and other protests as the president of the lobbying and research organization TransAfrica, as a founder of the Free South Africa Movement and on behalf of Haitian refugees. In 1984, Representative Don Edwards, a California Democrat, called him “the most effective foreign policy catalyst in recent history.”
But the frustration and resentment he felt over what he viewed as only a grudging acquiescence of the American government and white society to Black civil rights and equal opportunity drove him to quit as head of TransAfrica and emigrate in 2001.
“What have I done with my pain?” he asked in his book “Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America,” which was published in 1998, shortly before he and his wife moved to St. Kitts.
“I am not eager to know,” he wrote. “I can find no answer of which I can be proud. White-hot hatred would seem the proper reflex. But there is no survival there. In the autumn of my life, I am left regarding white people, before knowing them individually, with irreducible mistrust and dull dislike.”
Unlike his successful campaign for economic sanctions and corporate disinvestment in South Africa, or his 27-day hunger strike that pressured the Clinton administration to open the gates to some Haitian refugees, Mr. Robinson’s campaign for widespread reparations on the basis of lineage to the progeny of enslaved African Americans, and his embittered expatriation, generated a backlash.
Reviewing Mr. Robinson’s book “Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man From His Native Land” in The Washington Post, the Black author Jake Lamar concluded that “above all, ‘Quitting America’ is a love story; more specifically, a wrenching tale of unrequited love.” But, Mr. Lamar added: “Surely America must offer a great many Black citizens — who have had the opportunity to leave — something that they have not found elsewhere.”
Randall Maurice Robinson was born on July 6, 1941, in Richmond, Va., to Maxie and Doris (Jones) Robinson. Growing up in the segregated South shaped him from the beginning.
“The insult of segregation was searing and unforgettable,” he told The Progressive magazine in 2005. “I decided a long time ago to join the social justice movement. It was salvaging.
“We all have to die,” he continued, “and I preferred to have just one death. It seems to me that to suffer insult without response is to die many deaths.”
Mr. Robinson, who was 6-foot-5, won a basketball scholarship to Norfolk State College (now University) in Virginia in 1959, but he left during his junior year and was drafted into the Army. He later attended Virginia Union University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1967, and Harvard Law School, from which he received a degree in 1970.
He practiced civil rights law in Boston, won a Ford Foundation fellowship to work in Tanzania, and from 1972 to 1975 directed the community development division of the Roxbury Multi-Service Center in Boston. He then moved to Washington to become administrative assistant to Representative Bill Clay, a Missouri Democrat.
Mr. Robinson founded TransAfrica in 1977 with the goal of influencing U.S. foreign policy concerning African and Caribbean countries. He and other Black leaders were arrested during a sit-in in 1984 at the South African Embassy in Washington and later formed the Free South Africa Movement.
He was a supporter of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Salesian priest who became Haiti’s first democratically elected president but who was overthrown in a coup that sent boatloads of Haitian refugees to the United States beginning in 1991. Mr. Robinson sought to relax the policy of repatriating the refugees to Haiti, where many faced reprisals as Aristide supporters. Mr. Aristide was later reinstated, but in 2004 he was ousted in another coup, said to have been engineered by France and the United States.
Among Mr. Robinson’s other books were “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks” (2000). Although he continued to live in St. Kitts, he began teaching at the Dickinson School of Law at Pennsylvania State University in 2008.
In addition to Ms. Ross-Robinson, he is survived by a daughter from their marriage, Khalea Ross Robinson; two children from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce, Anike Robinson and Jabari Robinson; and two sisters, Jewell Robinson Sheppard and the Rev. Dr. Jean Robinson-Casey.
Mr. Robinson was instrumental in pressuring the white South African government to end its official policy of racial segregation. His record on some other policy initiatives, however, was mixed.
“No matter what the outcome, it’s worth it always to try,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “It’s better when you’re successful, but it’s always worth it to try.”
At home, he strove for perfection in his avocation, woodworking, where the process was more flexible but the product, for better or worse, could be definitive.
“In my career work, I can never be sure what the outcome will be, but I have complete control over these projects here,” he told The Times. “If you’re going to carve, if you want to finish it during your lifetime, you want a router. How does one use it? Very careful. You can’t put wood back.”
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