A Friend in Need

updated 05/23/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/23/1994 01:00AM

FOR MORE THAN THREE WEEKS HUMAN rights activist Randall Robinson, 52, had held court in the cluttered concrete basement of his office in downtown Washington, receiving visitors including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, actor Danny Glover, rap star KRS-One—and countless TV news crews. Since April 12 he had had no solid food—only water and fruit juice—and had vowed to continue his fast until the U.S. government changed its immigration policy on Haitian refugees.

Though Clinton maintained that Robinson's fast would play no role in determining foreign policy, the White House nevertheless kept a careful eye on Robinson's condition—he was hospitalized briefly for dehydration—and several of Clinton's top advisers communicated with him frequently.

Then last week, on a quiet Sunday morning 27 days into the hunger-strike, Clinton blinked. A drawn and weary Robinson received a call from the President's National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake. When he hung up, he was smiling broadly. "The Administration is changing its policy," Robinson announced. "I can see the finish line." That afternoon Clinton held a press conference to say that the U.S. would no longer send Haitian refugees back automatically but would grant each one an asylum hearing. Though Clinton only went so far as to praise Robinson's "conviction and courage," few doubt his role in the policy switch. "He sounded the alarm of conscience," says Massachusetts senator John Kerry. "It wasn't just anyone on a hunger strike. It was someone who already had great moral authority."

Robinson has earned that authority through more than a decade of tireless opposition to South Africa's apartheid regime. But for the fast, he would have been on his way to Johannesburg to celebrate a new era with his friend Nelson Mandela. In his phone call, Lake offered Robinson a berth with the official U.S. delegation to Pretoria for Mandela's inauguration as South Africa's president, but Robinson was simply too weak. He had dropped 13 pounds and was, according to his doctors, five days away from a danger zone of starvation, when the body begins to consume its own protein, endangering the heart. "I'm not able to go," he said sadly. "I don't have the strength."

Raised in Richmond, Va., under what he once called American apartheid, Robinson was 21 before he ever had a conversation with a white person. His father, Maxie, was a history teacher in an all-black high school, and his mother, Doris, quit teaching to raise Randall, his older brother, Max (who went on to become the country's first black network anchor before dying of AIDS in 1988), and his two sisters. "Early on in life I was taught that an unprincipled life is not worth living," he says.

After 21 months in the Army, Robinson graduated from all-black Virginia Union University in 1967 and went to Harvard Law School with help from the GI Bill. After his 1970 graduation, he became an aide to Michigan representative Charles Diggs Jr. and in 1976 visited Cape Town with a congressional delegation. There, he said, he witnessed firsthand that "black lives simply meant nothing." Nine months later, he founded TransAfrica, a lobbying group for African and Caribbean causes.

In 1984, TransAfrica's Free South Africa campaign began picketing outside the South African embassy in Washington. Robinson was arrested seven times, countless politicians and celebrities joined the fight, and by 1986 public pressure had intensified enough to convince Congress to override President Reagan's veto and impose economic sanctions on South Africa. "When history is written of the struggle for a new South Africa," Sen. Edward Kennedy said several years ago, "Randall Robinson's name will join those of Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others who worked so hard to make the dream of freedom a reality."

Robinson's priority for the moment is to regain his strength and settle back in with Hazel, his wife of seven years, a foreign policy adviser to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and daughter Khalea, 4. (He also has a daughter, Anike, 22, and a son, Jabari, 19, from a previous marriage to librarian Brenda Randolph.) But he's not exactly taking his victory for granted. "I don't want to get too high," Robinson says. "This is just an intermediate result. Tomorrow is another day."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
PETER MEYER and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

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