Randall Robinson just wanted to be noticed.
It was 1950s Richmond, Va., and Robinson was a 13-year-old delivery boy awaiting a signature for groceries he had delivered to a family in the white suburbs. He was standing in the shadow of an old prewar icebox listening to family members talk about the most embarrassing matters when he suddenly realized they didn't see him.
As much as he shuffled his feet and cleared his throat, no one paid any attention. It wasn't until years later when Robinson read Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" that he could put a name on the feeling, but that afternoon he understood, in the most gut-wrenching way, that he, too, was invisible.
These days, Randall Robinson, 52, doesn't have to worry about people paying attention. He is the guiding light and co-founder of TransAfrica, an internationally recognized black lobbying organization. And when it comes to the most important issues in the international black community over the past decade--South Africa and Haiti--many believe he is one of the most influential leaders in this country.
They point to his recent hunger strike as a significant factor in forcing the Clinton Administration to change its Haiti policy--"27 days into the hunger strike, Clinton blinked," wrote one national magazine. And to his anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s. Robinson's protests snowballed into a national movement that raised congressional consciousness and helped lead to the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which cut U.S. economic ties with South Africa.
Immediately after its passage, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the prime Senate sponsor of the act, said: "When history is written of the struggle for a new South Africa, Randall Robinson's name will join those of Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and the others who worked so hard to make the dream of freedom a reality."
Last week, fellow Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said: "It was Randall Robinson who first sounded the moral alarm on Haiti. And he had the moral authority to do so because of his work with the Free South Africa Movement in pushing the South African boycott bill through Congress."
Robinson's quiet clout was never better demonstrated than in April and May.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton scored major points by excoriating President George Bush for his Haiti policy. "I am appalled by the decision of the Bush Administration to pick up fleeing Haitians on the high seas and forcibly return them to Haiti," Clinton said. But after the election, his Administration dragged its heels at changing that policy.
Robinson began a hunger strike April 12. By the end of the third week (he drank water and juice and lost 13 pounds) and as media reports about his health increased, the pressure on Clinton mounted. And while the White House publicly downplayed interest in Robinson, it was quietly sending emissaries to ask him what it would take to end his fast.
The answer was the same on the 20th day of the strike--when Samuel Berger, Clinton's deputy national security adviser, came to call--as it had been on the first. All Robinson wanted the President to do, he told Berger, was to keep his word.
Berger left the TransAfrica building in northwest Washington near Embassy Row making no commitment. Caught by reporters later, he had no comment, other than to express admiration for Robinson. Yet within a week--during which there was a flurry of media attention as Robinson was briefly hospitalized for dehydration--Anthony Lake, the President's national security adviser was calling.
It was a quiet, lonely Saturday at strike headquarters in the TransAfrica basement. The only guests were Robinson's wife and young daughter, who was sitting in vigil at her father's bedside when the phone rang. Lake had two questions, Robinson recalls: What would Robinson do if the President announced the next day that he was changing his Haiti policy and that the refugees would no longer be immediately repatriated to Haiti but, rather, given a chance to prove their refugee status?
And second, would Robinson do the President the honor of accompanying Vice President Al Gore on Air Force One the next day, May 8, as it winged a delegation of American dignitaries to Johannesburg for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa?
Robinson's answer was simple--he would wait to see what the President had to say and, given the shape he was in after a nearly monthlong hunger strike, thank you but no, he didn't think he'd be able to take the President up on his offer of free air fare to Johannesburg.
The next day, having seen the President's statement about offshore hearings for refugees seeking political asylum, Robinson announced that he was ending his fast.
Growing up the son of a history teacher and high school coach, Maxie (Iron Man) Robinson, Randall Robinson was instilled with a sense of pride and achievement at an early age. The whole family was: Robinson's older brother, Max Robinson, was the nation's first black network-TV anchor (he died of AIDS in 1988); one sister is an actress, the other is an elementary school teacher.
Robinson won a scholarship to Norfolk State University. After three years of college, he was drafted.
It was during his two-year stint in the Army that Robinson started to realize that African Americans should care about Africa after reading "A Kind of Homecoming," by E.R. Braithwaite, which told of a trip the author had taken to Africa.
"It was only vicarious," Robinson says now, "but it was as though I had gone with him."
After his Army detour, Robinson returned to college and finished his degree in sociology in 1967. He earned a law degree from Harvard in 1970. He got the chance to go to Africa later that year on a Ford Foundation fellowship. There, on an island off the coast of Senegal, he stood in the preserved doorway of an ancient fortress from which thousands of Africans had been ushered on to a ship and sent to America. And it was then that the young boy who had once stood motionless, invisible in a white household in suburban Virginia, broke down and cried.
In 1976, Robinson and a number of supporters--Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Arthur Ashe and Richard Hatcher among them--started TransAfrica with a $5,000 donation. The idea was simple: "As Greek Americans care about Greece," Robinson says, "and Jewish Americans care about Israel, (African Americans) should care about Africa. It's the fountainhead of our people, and our destinies are inextricably linked.
"In the last analysis, African Americans will stand only as tall as Africa stands. And an Africa that takes its place on the world stage will be tremendously enabling to all African Americans."
Clinton wasn't the first President to feel the bite of Robinson's convictions.
By the mid-1980s, it was clear to Robinson and others that Ronald Reagan's policy of "engagement" with South Africa--trading with that the country in the hope it would change--was a failure. The defining moment for Robinson came in the fall of 1984 when the Botha government arrested virtually the entire (black) leadership of the South African trade union movement.
Recruiting two like-minded individuals, Robinson called the South African ambassador and arranged an appointment on Nov. 21, 1984.
All went well for the first hour or so, until the ambassador was called out of the meeting. When he returned, Robinson recalls with a smile, "he was ashen faced. Of the three choices he had, we fervently hoped that in his apartheid-inflated bravado, he would make the right one" and have them arrested.
The arrests (including that of a U.S. congressman) made front-page headlines around the world the next day. Over the next year, anywhere from one to 120 people were arrested at the South African Consulate every day--more than 5,000 total--including such politicians and celebrities as then-Connecticut Sen. Lowell Weicker, Stevie Wonder, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ashe. By the time the initial series of protests was over, Congress was on its way to passing the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 (over Reagan's veto) and, with its last significant trading partner slipping away, the government in Pretoria was forced finally to confront the international legacy of its apartheid policy.
Robinson downplays his contributions. "I can't cause the President to change. Others have to do that. But to get them to do that, you have to get them a message. It must be kept simple, and it has to be repeated over and over and over."
What Robinson is proudest of is TransAfrica, which he believes will be his legacy. He has seen it grow to a foundation with a $1.2-million annual budget and a $3-million capital campaign. Among its supporters are Sugar Ray Leonard, who contributed $250,000, and Bill Cosby, who has raised more than $500,000. Among other recent donors: sports-shoe manufacturer Reebok with $375,000 and Coca-Cola with $150,000.
"I have always bridled at the notion that African Americans should only concern themselves with domestic issues," Robinson says. "Anywhere decisions about America and the world are being made, we have an obligation to participate."
And TransAfrica, he believes, has a special obligation. "American policy should reflect American ideals, and if those ideals are to be supportive of democracy and economic development, then we have not behaved that way over the past 30 years toward Africa and the Caribbean.
"Somalias don't just happen," he says. "We had a lot to do with it. We sent the dictator of a peaceful, pastoral society that had survived 1,000 years $887 million worth of arms--everything he needed to destroy himself and his people--just because we wanted access to an air base in the Gulf of Aden."
On Wednesday, former Rep. Williams H. Gray III, the special White House envoy for Haiti, told a House panel that Clinton is ready to consider unilateral military action if sanctions fail. He also said the United States is making progress in pulling together a multinational peacekeeping force for Haiti that would move in after the military regime falls--peacefully or because of an invasion.
"I have always believed that if you've got a message that resonates, a simple message, a call for simple fairness, you've got a chance. And if you can craft strategies to deliver that message to the masses, it can work.
"But if you can do that," he says later, "you have a chance . . . and it really doesn't matter if you are up against a President of the United States."