By Sam P.K. Collins
At the height of his activism, Randall Robinson shined light on apartheid in South America during the 1970s and, decades later, facilitated the safe return of exiled Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide.
However, those mourning Robinson’s recent death also designate the ongoing and ever-growing movement for reparations as a crucial part of his legacy.
In 2000, Robinson published “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” a collection of essays that poignantly explained how chattel slavery and segregation separated Black people from their rich African culture and relegated them to permanent second-class American citizenship.
In his book, Robinson demanded monetary reparations and the establishment of educational programs and economic opportunities that ensured an equal footing for all Americans. For Ray Winbush, a colleague of the late Robinson and member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA), Robinson’s scholarship made people, race notwithstanding, look at reparations in a different light.
Winbush and Robinson attended a conference in Toronto during the early 2000s, around the time that Robinson published “The Debt.” Years later, Winbush published “Should America Pay?: Slavery and Raging Debate on Reparations.” He said Robinson’s work solidified support among people in the African Diaspora for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance that took place in South Africa in 2001.
“At best, people thought reparations were a fantasy of the Black nationalist movement,” said Winbush, who serves as director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “Randall received death threats because of that book. For the first time, Randall made people take reparations seriously, even though politically it had always been on the lips of Black people in this country, Europe, South America, and even Australia.”
On March 24, Robinson died in St. Kitts, where he moved with his family shortly after releasing “The Debt.” He was 81.
In 2004, Robinson released “Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land,” in which he outlined the events leading to his move to the Caribbean. In that book, he also explored his deep-seated angst about the dismal conditions Black people in the United States experience.
In the decades after Robinson left the United States, the reparations movement has gained significant traction.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the state of California and several cities have either launched reparations programs or commissions for the study of reparations. In the District, where Robinson founded the foreign-policy-focused advocacy organization TransAfrica in 1977, Council member Kenyan McDuffie (I-At large) reintroduced legislation establishing a reparations commission.
Meanwhile, H.R. 40 is once again making its way through the U.S. House with more than 80 co-sponsors thus far. If passed, H.R. 40 would establish a federal commission to study and develop reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans.
Last year, when the Democrats held a majority in the House and Senate, H.R. 40 passed out of the House Judiciary Committee with more than 200 co-sponsors and some Republican support. However, it didn’t make it to the House floor. Insiders pointed to then-House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D- South Carolina) as one of the main opponents of taking that step.
Some reparations advocates, including Kenniss Henry, expressed doubt about whether the legislation would be much of a priority this year given the 18-month timeline required to fulfill what’s outlined in the bill.
However, that hasn’t stopped her and other NCOBRA members from organizing around this issue.
In years past, NCOBRA, along with other members of a reparations coalition, sent letters to House leadership demanding that they push the legislation forward. They also sent President Joe Biden (D) a letter with 400 signatures pressing him to issue an executive order for reparations.
Henry said Biden has yet to respond.
The Informer also reached out to The White House Black regarding the Biden administration’s strategy in getting H.R. 40 to his desk, or whether the president has explored an executive order, but had not heard back as of deadline.
Henry, an NCOBRA member of nearly a decade, extolled local and statewide efforts to explore reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans. She said the commissions formed thus far across the nation have provided further clarity of what constitutes true reparatory justice for Black people.
In crediting Robinson with setting the standard for reparations, Henry expressed some apprehension about how newcomers to the movement have made it just a matter of receiving money. She questioned whether activists so focused on a check truly understand what Robinson conveyed in “The Debt.”
“The disconnect threatens the reparations movement,” said Henry, who serves as NCOBRA’s national co-chair and legislative committee co-chair. “It also threatens the true spirit of reparations. It must be more than ‘cut the check.’ Randall Robinson was one of the pioneers when it came to saying that America owes us. If America just owed us a check, he wouldn’t have been able to speak on the depth that America owes us.”