Except for a few ugly encounters when he escorted his mother downtown to a department store, Robinson remembers the two races lived in separate worlds. "I grew up in the South never meeting a white person. I saw them, but I never met them until I was grown." He would not sit next to a white student until 1967, when at the age of 26 he enrolled in Harvard Law School.
At Harvard, he became involved in lobbying the university to divest its South African stocks. That brought him in contact with Charles Diggs, who was then serving as chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa.
Robinson joined Diggs' staff, but his affiliations with Diggs ended in 1976, when the congressman was forced to resign (he was later imprisoned for payroll violations). "Diggs made a major mistake and paid dearly for it. But at the same time, he made enormous contributions to the civil rights movement and sparked in Congress the original interest in Africa," Robinson remembers. Before Diggs' political demise, Robinson was assigned by the Congressional Black Caucus to develop a position paper challenging Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's southern Africa policy. The establishment of TransAfrica grew out of that effort.
A quarter of a century later, Robinson still has disdain for a number of policy titans he opposed, particularly Kissinger. "I can't think of any living Western policy leader who is responsible for more deaths in the world than Henry Kissinger, and that includes in Cambodia and land mines in Angola and Mozambique."
In Washington, Robinson is both an insider and an outsider, especially in a political climate that has turned away from the liberal agenda. In his book, Robinson takes to task selected members of the black leadership who, he believes, have forgotten their mission. In an already famous phrase, he warns them about catching "Vernon Jordan disease," which he defines as a "degenerative condition among blacks in Privilege that results in a loss of any memory of what they came to Privilege to accomplish."
At the top of TransAfrica's current agenda is an effort to halt what Robinson sees as America's post-Cold War strategy to recolonize Africa. "The new IMF [International Monetary Fund] mantra is austerity, but the conditions they impose will result in African nations ending up owning very little of their own industries," he concludes.
There are signs that Robinson may be mellowing. Clearly he has grown weary of the ceaseless need for fund-raising. He is confused by Nelson Mandela's decision to decline an invitation to be the honored guest at one of the organization's annual fund-raisers. Some speculated that the South African leader rejected the invitation because of his concern for retaining good relations with Western industrial leaders. Robinson contends there is no bad blood between them, but admits, "I was hurt."
Robinson lives in the Washington area with his wife, Hazel, and their 8-year-old daughter, Khalea. From a previous marriage, he has two adult children.
In the end, Robinson feels he has changed little since the inception of TransAfrica. "I'm probably as idealistic as when I started at 35," he says. "But as I wrote in my book, I realize, 'There is a time to come and there is a time to go.' "