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Randall Robinson, human rights activist and lawyer, has died at 81

Randall Robinson, a human rights activist and lawyer known for his advocacy against South African apartheid and for Haitian democracy, died Friday at age 81. He died in St. Kitts, the Caribbean island where he spent the last two decades of his life, of aspiration pneumonia.

"He was an incredible father," said Khalea Ross Robinson, his daughter, who confirmed his death to NPR on Sunday. "He did a lot on behalf of people he hadn't even met."

Robinson was one of the leaders of the Free South Africa Movement, which began in the 1980s and pushed to end apartheid. He "led a range of foreign policy campaigns in his life-long advocacy in defense of democracy and justice in Africa and the Caribbean," a press release from Robinson's family says.

Robinson founded the Washington, D.C.-based foreign policy advocacy organization TransAfrica in 1977 to promote "diversity and equity in the foreign policy arena and justice for the African World" including the African diaspora, according to the group's mission statement. He served as the president of the organization until 2001.

During his time at TransAfrica, he organized a sit-in at the South African embassy to lobby against apartheid and went on a 27-day hunger strike to pressure the U.S. government to reinstate the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, among many other actions. He was also a leading voice advocating for reparations for Black Americans.

He was born in Richmond, Va., in 1941, and attributed his activism later in life to his experiences of segregation.

"The insult of segregation was searing and unforgettable," he said in a 2005 interview with The Progressive Magazine. He said joining the social justice movement was "salvaging. We all have to die, and I preferred to have just one death. It seems to me that to suffer insult without response is to die many deaths."

Before founding TransAfrica and becoming known for his political activism, he earned a J.D. at Harvard Law School and worked as a civil rights attorney in Boston. He served as a professor of human rights law at Penn State University and wrote several books.

In 2001, Robinson left the United States to settle in St. Kitts in the Caribbean, with his wife, Hazel Ross-Robinson. In one of his books, he explains that he left the U.S. for a place that he considered more peaceful and hospitable to Black people.

"I never believed my place was necessarily physically in America," he told NPR in 2004. "I am as much a Nigerian, a Haitian, a South African, a Kittitian, a Jamaican as I am an American. There shouldn't be these partitions between the people of the Black world. I have lived that and I have committed myself to that in everything that I've done throughout my life."

A funeral service will be held in St. Kitts in April, and a memorial service will be held in Washington, D.C., in May, according to the family.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kaitlyn Radde
Kaitlyn Radde is an intern for the Graphics and Digital News desks, where she has covered everything from the midterm elections to child labor. Before coming to NPR, she covered education data at Chalkbeat and contributed data analysis to USA TODAY coverage of Black political representation and NCAA finances. She is a graduate of Indiana University.