WASHINGTON — Randall Robinson just wanted to be noticed.
It was 1950s Richmond, Va., a town where Jim Crow still ruled, and Robinson was a 13-year-old deliv ery boy awaiting a signature for the groceries he had delivered to a family in the lily-white suburbs. He was standing in the shadow of an old prewar icebox listening to family members talk about the most embarrassing matters without missing a beat, 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. "It was like I wasn't there," he marvels.
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 last decade--South Africa and Haiti--many believe he is one of the most influential African American 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 during that time. But after the election, his Administration dragged its heels at changing that policy. Robinson, working in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus and other U.S. representatives, decided to hold the President's feet to the fire.
The chosen weapon was a hunger strike, which Robinson began 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 Trans-Africa 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.