INTERVIEW: Randall Robinson, Third World Advocate

Remembering Randall Robinson: Black internationalist, anti-imperialist and friend of Haiti
Remembering Randall Robinson: Black internationalist, anti-imperialist and friend of Haiti

Editor’s Note: The following was originally published in Black Agenda Report.

On March 24, 2023, Randall Robinson died at the age of 81. In his many obituaries, he will be remembered as a “human rights advocate, author, and law professor,” as well as “founder of TransAfrica,” and author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. Robinson became a household name after the organization he founded in 1977, TransAfrica, spearheaded public protests against South African apartheid in front of the South African embassies in the early 1980s, helping to give voice to the international anti-apartheid movement.

Once one of the largest African American human rights and social justice organizations, TransAfrica was founded on a vision where Africans and people of African descent are equal participants in the global world order. It took as a point of departure the belief that the freedom of African Americans is bound up with the “emancipation of all African people.” As such, TransAfrica’s mission was to serve as a “major research, education and organizing institution for the African-American community, offering constructive analysis concerning U.S. policy as it affects Africa and the African diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America.”

For some of us, what we remember most about Robinson is his enduring support of Haiti and Haitian people. He supported Haiti’s reassertion of sovereignty and democracy with the 1990 election of Jean Bertrand Aristide. After Aristide’s first overthrow—after only seven months in office—by a U.S.-backed coup d’etat, Robinson waged a 27-day hunger strike to both force the reinstatement of Aristide and to protest racist U.S. policies against Haitian migrants.

Perhaps the most enduring memories of Robinson’s steadfast support for Haiti and Haitian people come with the phone call to Democracy Now, in the early hours of March 1, 2004, after U.S. marines and the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Luis Moreno, went to Aristide’s house and forced him and family members onto an unmarked plane that then flew them out of the country. Robinson said:

“[Aristide] called me on a cell phone that was slipped to him by someone… The [U.S.] soldiers came into the house… They were taken at gunpoint to the airport and put on a plane. His own security detachment was taken as well and put in a separate compartment of the plane… The president was kept with his wife with the soldiers with the shades of the plane down… The president asked me to tell the world that it is a coup, that they have been kidnapped.”

Robinson remained a friend of Haiti. He flew with U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters to the Central African Republic, where Aristide had been dumped by U.S. special forces, to intervene on his behalf. Readers can learn much more about this ordeal in Robinson’s 2008 book, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President. Robinson also wrote a number of other important books, including Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America; The Reckoning – What Blacks Owe to Each Other; Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land; and two novels: The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay and Makeda.

In 2001, Robinson permanently left the United States to move to St. Kitts, the Caribbean island from which hailed wife, Hazel Ross-Robinson. He had become disillusioned with the retrograde, unjust, and incorrigible U.S. political system:

“America is a huge fraud, clad in narcissistic conceit and satisfied with itself, feeling unneeded of any self-examination nor responsibility to right past wrongs, of which it notices none.”

To mark Robinson’s passing and to remember his legacy, we reprint below a 1983 interview from Claude Lewis’s short-lived journal, The National Leader. The interview foregrounds Robinson’s deep understanding of global Black politics and the sharpness of his anti-imperialist analysis–especially concerning the role of the U.S. as the world’s hegemon. Robinson’s analysis, alongside his courage, his integrity, and his love of Black people, will be missed.

Randall Robinson: Third World Advocate

TransAfrica is a Washington-based lobby organization that often takes strong, progressive positions on African and Caribbean questions. Randall Robinson, a Harvard trained lawyer and farmer Congressional Hill staffer, is executive director of the six-year-old organization which now has 10,000 members. During an interview with Managing Editor Joe Davidson he castigated President Reagan for “the vileness of this administration’s policy toward the Black world” and the close relationship between the United States and South Africa, “the most vicious government this world has seen since Nazi Germany.”

Joe Davidson. How would you assess the level of involvement of the Black community in foreign affairs? Many people have complained over the years, or at least we have been stereotyped over the years as having interest only in domestic issues. What’s your experience?

Randall Robinson: I think it has changed fundamentally in the last 30 years. The post-civil rights movement, foreign affairs activity of the Black community has shown a dramatic increase of interest, and I think that is in large part because we’ve made some gains and we can think about some other things so that we don’t have to dwell so much on domestic concerns, but we can still monitor and express ourselves on domestic concerns and at the same time be involved in foreign policy concerns. I think it was a myth and untrue to suggest in the first place that we were not interested in foreign affairs. One looks back through the record; you can go back as far as Martin Delany, and Frederick Douglass, and Garvey, and James Weldon Johnson, and the NAACP, through the ’30s and before, to show a strong interest in foreign affairs. People like Alpheus Hunton in the ’30s and ’40s, and W.E.B. DuBois, of course, were instrumental in their foreign affairs involvement. I think there’s a more general popular involvement now on the part of the Black community and certainly on the part of Black institutions. I can’t think of a single Black national organization that at its annual convention does not take a position on a variety of issues, particularly those concerning U.S. policy toward Africa and the Caribbean.

JD: A number of people have expressed, informally, some dismay that there was not more of an outpouring of protest—on the street protest—against the Grenada invasion. Do you think that the level of protest against that was up to what you would expect or up to what you would want?

RR: I think it was up to what we would expect. There are a variety of reasons for that. It was a very complex situation and I think protest in the United States may have exceeded protest in the Caribbean itself. One has to remember that polls in Grenada – well not in Grenada but in Trinidad and In Jamaica and other places – showed that by and large Caribbean people supported the invasion. The question is “Why and why were there not more protests in the United States?” First of all, I think that one cannot diminish or underestimate the impact that the killing of Maurice Bishop had on the levels of protest that we saw expressed in the wake of the invasion. The killing of Maurice Bishop, and Jacqueline Creft, and Unison Whiteman and the others were at first met by extreme reactions of anger, including my own. Maurice, Unison and others involved were both personal friends, political colleagues, and people who were very decent, idealistic human beings who dedicated their lives to the betterment of the lot of their people in Grenada. And they were summarily executed by people who took it upon themselves to wrest power away from those in whom it was duly vested. So, the Reagan administration saw an opportunity—with the successors to Bishop stripped of support—to invade; and they took that opportunity. There were many in Trinidad and Jamaica who were interested in seeing Maurice avenged without thinking about the implications of the act of the avenger. In addition to which many were confused by the invitation on the part of the Eastern Caribbean States to have the United states join with them in the invasion. So, all of these things served to muddle public reaction in the United States. Particularly given the fact that most Americans don’t know very much about anything west of Los Angeles or east of Washington, D.C. And ignorance, coupled with affection for Maurice, the barbarity of the action of his and his cabinet ministers’ elimination all taken together made for a dampened reaction to the invasion in the United States.

JD: What should be done now with Grenada? The invasion is fait accompli, it’s history, Maurice Bishop is dead; he can’t be brought back. What do you think should be done now?

RR: Well I think first, Maurice can’t be brought back, but as (former Jamaican Prime Minister) Michael Manley told me in a long discussion we had two weeks ago, “This may have produced a hundred Maurice Bishops.” Maurice Bishop did not live in vain; he left a sterling record of accomplishment and commitment to be emulated in time to come. And one has to believe that in Grenada itself, a few years from now, that Maurice Bishop having been martyred will arise as a memory and life model to be cherished by young Grenadians. I think that the first thing to do is to get the United States out and to get a self-determination of that nation’s sovereignty restored and democratic institutions restored. I don’t mean democratic institutions certainly in the way that Reagan and his people mean them, but institutions in which Grenadians themselves broadly participate in ways they see fit, meeting their own needs. So that means getting the U.S. out. That means to have the government that follows on not bullied into this policy or that policy by the mammoth to the north. The reason the U.S. invaded is what causes us concern in the first place. We know the invasion had nothing to do with the safety of American lives, but had everything to do with the Grenadian leadership not doing what they were told to do; for developing friendships as self-determination prerogatives allow nations to develop, with Cuba and with the Soviet Union but also with Europe and with the Western Bloc. Grenada was truly non-aligned. One must fight to preserve for future Grenadian government the same prerogatives of self-determination and sovereignty. It is up to them and them alone to determine what kind of political and economic system that they want to have and what kinds of relationships they want to develop with countries in the region and outside of the region, Eastern or Western Bloc countries. And failing that, what we have is a de facto restoration of colonialism in Grenada. We in the United States who are concerned about these things must make certain that the United States is not allowed to de facto re-colonize that country.

JD: You hosted Maurice Bishop in this country in May. There was a big dinner for him, your annual dinner at which he spoke. During that visit, he also met with members of the Reagan administration. It had been suggested by some that he was attempting to move closer to the United States. Is that true?

RR: He was attempting to develop a rapprochement with the United States in the same fashion that Cuba and any number of other nations in the hemisphere have attempted to do. “Move closer,” suggests that he wanted an alliance with the United States different from their friendships with other countries. They wanted normalized relations, they wanted trade, they wanted a diminution of the hostility that existed between the two countries. His trip here was an olive branch and he was rebuffed. He came and asked for a meeting with President Reagan (and was) refused, asked for a meeting with Secretary (of State George) Shultz and was refused, and was offered a meeting with the American ambassador to the OAS, Mittendorf – of course that was a rather gratuitous and harsh slap in the face to have a head of state meet with the American ambassador to the OAS – and in the last analysis he was given a meeting with William Clark, the National Security Council advisor and was rebuffed in that meeting. So that the Maurice Bishop that the Reagan administration now describes as “the martyred of the New Jewel Movement” was put in a position of weakness by the same administration that refused to normalize relations with him. Maurice did not want a lopsided foreign policy that saw him locked into relationships with eastern countries without relationships of the same sort with western nations. Certainly the Europeans responded in a sensible fashion, because the airport there and their development program have been assisted by the British and the other European economic community countries. Only the United States, the big bully of the hemisphere, treated Grenada in this fashion.

JD: Let’s move across the ocean to southern Africa. The Commonwealth nations, including two members of the contact group—the western contact group, Canada and Britain—recently said that the United States is at fault for there being no settlement to the Namibian question. This is something that you have said for a long time. “The issue of the Cubans in Angola is a phoney issue,” you’ve said and others. But now because the Commonwealth and because members of the contact group are coming out and saying that too, do you think it will change Reagan administration policy on Namibia?

RR: No, I don’t think anything will change Reagan administration policy. The only way to change Reagan administration policy is to get a new tenant at the White House, and we’ve got to dedicate ourselves to making sure that’s done next year. First of all, one has to make clear that the Reagan administration never had the independence of Namibia at the top of its agenda. That was simply a sort of smoke screen behind which the Reagan administration was cultivating a closer relationship with the Republic of South Africa. South Africa in Reagan eyes, of course, is the guardian of Western interests in that part of the world. And so the United States is much more concerned about the containment of what it calls “the spread of communism” in southern Africa than it was about the interests and freedom of the people of Namibia. They’ve been subordinated. And if there were, two months ago, any chance of persuading the people of Angola that they could do without Cuban assistance I think the invasion of Grenada completely dashed any faith they might have in U.S. good faith. The Angolans have asked for a long time should they send the Cubans home. The Cubans, who together with their own forces, are all that stand between them and a South African toppling of their government. They’ve asked who would help them with their security concerns, who would protect them from South African troops; and the United States has now answered by demonstrating that it has no more concern for the sovereignty of a small developing nation than do the South Africans. So how is the Angolan government in Luanda to put any faith in any assurances that come out of Washington after this nation has violated the OAS charter, the United Nations charter, international law, and its own domestic law in invading Grenada in the way that it did?

JD: Chester Crocker, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, sees constructive evolutionary change in southern Africa. At the same time, the policy of constructive engagement has brought about an increase in cross-border raids, an increase in forced relocations and a general crackdown on the opponents of apartheid including recently a number of whites who have been supportive of the aims of the African National Congress. The relationship between the Reagan administration and South Africa appears to be firming up apartheid. Is there anything that can be done other than getting the Reagan administration out to change that?

RR: Mr. Crocker is not stupid. He sees South Africa with the same eyes that you do. South Africans are very pleased with the responses of this administration to its activities and clearly the administration in Pretoria has moved to the right both in its relations with its neighbors as well as in its domestic policy since the Reagan administration has been in power.

Again, let’s restate the basic premise here that the United States has no intention under the Reagan leadership of changing the configuration of power in southern Africa. It does not want to dramatically reshape the sort of power structure of South Africa. It likes it perfectly fine, likes white supremacy perfectly all right. Because it is that white leadership that is so virulently anti-Communist and so much in tune with Reagan geopolitical visions of how the world ought to be ordered.

I think one can do some things to temper this kind of right wing zealousness on the part of the Reagan administration before a turn in government, but that requires at the same time an enormous effort on the part of Americans to demonstrate their displeasure with this kind of alliance that these people have formed with the South Africans. At the same time there are a good many things, Joe, that we are doing with the Congress that the Reagan administration would be hard put to turn back. One, there’s the bill offered by Rep. William Gray of Philadelphia to prohibit any new American investment in South Africa. That is a part of the Export Administration Act. Now, that passed in the House. There is no counterpart language in the Senate Export Administration Bill. But we go to conference in January, on the bill; and to keep the language in we have to persuade the Senate conferees, particularly a Republican or two, that this language is important to us. Now once we get this passed, it would be very difficult for the Reagan administration or President Reagan to veto the Export Administration Act.

One of the key people that we have to sway on this, on the conference committee is going to be Senator (John) Heinz of Pennsylvania. So we have to concentrate our lobbying on Senator Heinz and the others who are going to be on that conference committee to let them know how important this legislation is to the Black leadership and sensitive white leadership in this country. In addition, there’s the Solarz Bill that does one thing I’m not particularly interested in and opposed, but two things I very much support. It would codify, make mandatory the Sullivan Principles. Now, Rev. Leon Sullivan and I have worked very closely together on a number of things. We just happen to disagree on the strength and importance and usefulness of the Sullivan Principles. But he supports the Gray Bill and has been shoulder-to-shoulder with us on prohibition of new investment. In addition to which the Solarz Bill would prohibit the sale of Krugerrands, South African gold pieces, in the United States and would further prohibit American bank loans to the South African government. So those are two important elements of that legislation. This is also a part of the Export Administration Act and in conference we have to retain this.

We can’t have two of the elements chipped away with just the Sullivan Principles left standing. Again, Senator Heinz and others will be important in this context. Lastly, of course there is the IMF (International Monetary Fund) bill that we are going to see as a part of it anti-apartheid language. Not the language that we wanted which would mean no support possible for any American vote for an IMF loan to South Africa. But we do have language now that calls for a demonstration from the administration that South Africans have taken action to significantly reduce apartheid before getting such a loan and calling upon the South Africans to go into the private capital market before going to the IMF in the first place, and then requiring the Treasury—the Secretary of the Treasury—21 days in advance of any intent to vote for a loan for South Africa to come to the Congress and to demonstrate that these conditions have been met. Now, President Reagan will have to sign the IMF bill.

So what I’m suggesting, Joe, is that there are some things that we’ve been able to do through the Congress as parts of bills that the administration wants that net some real progress for us. But in terms of expecting anything more from this administration, of an anti-apartheid fashion; no, we’d be dreaming to expect that. These people very much favor what’s going on in South Africa.

“Randall Robinson: Third World Advocate,” The National Leader: The Weekly Newspaper Linking the Black Community Nationwide 2 no. 32 (December 15, 1983)