Activist Randall Robinson

Randall Robinson, “human rights advocate, author, and law professor,” in the words of The HistoryMakers, died Friday morning at age 81, James Hudson, a colleague at TransAfrica, the Washington-based organization Robinson founded, told Journal-isms on Saturday.

He had been hospitalized and died in a hospital on St. Kitts, the Caribbean island to which he fled, disillusioned with the United States, in 2001. His wife, Hazel Ross-Robinson, messaged March 26 that the cause of death was aspiration pneumonia.

Robinson was known to journalists not only as founder of TransAfrica, established in 1977 and soon a force in the struggle against apartheid, but as the younger brother of pioneering broadcast journalist Max Robinson and as an advocate for reparations who in 2000 wrote “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.”

In that capacity, Journal-isms invited Robinson to join a Journal-isms Roundtable on reparations that would take place on Jan. 30.

“I will, unfortunately, be unable to participate but would like to say that there are few better equipped to speak on ‘What journalists need to know about Africa‘ than Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, and the leading force behind the African Renaissance,” Robinson messaged Dec. 30 from St. Kitts.

“With reference to reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates, as you know, has written extensively and brilliantly on the topic, and there are few international voices as utterly compelling as that of Dr. Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies” and chair of the reparations campaign for CARICOM, a union of 20 – – member and associate — countries in the Caribbean. He wished us a “very successful session,” which it was.

Sent a link to the video of the session, Ross-Robinson wrote back last week on her husband’s behalf. “Thank you for these links and, most importantly, for inviting journalists — and the public — to explore this complex and important topic.”

In 2006, Bill Fletcher Jr., who followed Robinson in what was by then called the TransAfrica Forum, stepped down. He wrote, “On one level it was impossible to follow from Randall.

“Randall had become almost larger than life. He was a great leader of a great cause, and was completely associated with the struggle against apartheid, and deserves such credit for his leadership.

“Yet Randall encountered a number of issues after the victory of the anti-apartheid movement that have haunted us ever since: (1) is there an issue that can bring forward the mobilization that the anti-apartheid struggle did?, and (2) how do we take on campaigns around injustices where race is not the determining feature, i.e., issues or struggles where the situation does not fit neatly into a dynamic of oppressed Black masses vs. oppressor white elites?”

Hudson, who was a lawyer at TransAfrica, emphasized that the organization was “The African-American Lobby for Africa and the Caribbean,” particularly Haiti, its concerns more encompassing than apartheid. Robinson wrote “An Unbroken Agony” in 2008, about Haiti and its embattled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The organization shut down about eight years after Robinson left, Hudson said.

Robinson had his admirers in the media. In an award-winning 1994 column from Donna Britt in The Washington Post, “A Valentine to Black Men,” Britt namechecked Robinson “for being so elegantly angry.”

Karlyn Barker, who covered the daily anti-apartheid demonstrations outside the South African embassy for the Post in the mid-1980s, told Journal-isms, ” Randall and TransAfrica staff did an amazing job of keeping the media’s attention on the daily protests/arrests at the embassy that went on for a full year as I recall.

“One day it was school children. Another day Bishop [DesmondTutu. Always a personage or a little twist or a big group of arrestees to keep the anti-apartheid issue front and center. And when the divestiture campaign gained steam, the [apartheid] policy was abolished and [Nelson] Mandela’s release assured.”  

Asked about Robinson’s connection to journalists, Hudson said, “his deepest pleasure was writing and thinking about things.”

There was more, even touching on the current debate over “objectivity.” In “The Debt,” Robinson wrote, “For more than twenty years I have read newspaper accounts of developments in Africa and the Caribbean in which I have had a direct firsthand involvement. Often the coverage has been fraught with factual error, critical omission, and wrongheaded perspective. Most of the misdescription was due, I supposed, to inadvertence or incompetence as opposed to bad intentions.

“The point is this. Even well-meaning, competent journalists sometime misreport events that occur in the world only days before. Journalism is not an exact science. Historiography is a hundredfold less exact than journalism — even when historians believe themselves sincerely trying to be objective. Their subjects are long dead. Records are incomplete or nonexistent. Flawed premises beget more flawed premises. . . .”