The University Record, January 28, 2002

Speaker calls for end to ‘Modern Slavery’

By Claudia Capos
Business School Public Relations

Robinson (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)
Internationally respected human rights advocate and best-selling author Randall Robinson was the featured speaker at the Business School during the campus-wide observance of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In his keynote address, “What America Owes to Blacks and What Blacks Owe to Each Other,” he urged the American nation to “come to grips with its own past” and to end “modern slavery,” which has perpetuated inequality, poverty, incarceration and despair for African-Americans and other minorities.

“I think Dr. King would want us to use this opportunity, each of us individually, to talk about what we are going to do to make our society better,” Robinson said. “Democracy is difficult. It is rooted in an enlightened citizenry. That means we have a responsibility to know and to act, and to apply principles and convictions to contemporary social policy in the future, as we would have it develop.”

Many of the nation’s most visible symbols of democracy and enlightenment—including the Capitol building and the White House, and prominent endowed Ivy League universities and leading American corporations—were built by slave labor or financed with money gained through 246 years of American slavery, Robinson told his audience. He deplored the failure of American historical accounts to record and duly recognize the great contributions made to this country by illustrious Blacks, such as ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who helped 300 slaves find their way to freedom via the underground railroad. The rich ancestral heritage of Blacks, which is rooted in the history of Africa’s most advanced ancient civilizations, has been largely ignored as well, he added.

“Dr. King knew that the greatest crime of slavery was the theft from a people of their story of themselves,” Robinson said. “It is an ongoing crime.”

In 1929–1960, the cost of labor discrimination against Blacks ran to $1.4 trillion, according to sources cited by Robinson, and mortgage discrimination cost the Black community an estimated $30 billion per generation.

“[This was] all done with government permission,” he said. “And so there is this gap. African-Americans, when we graduate from college, look much like our white peers, but we won’t make as much and we will have almost no net assets, because mama and father had nothing to leave. Poverty, like wealth, is intergenerationally inherited.”

Robinson was 15 years old when the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in December 1955 catapulted the young Dr. King into a leadership role in the civil rights movement. One day King spoke at the all Black high school in Richmond, Va., where Robinson was a student, mired in a rigid segregationist system. As he departed, the civil rights leader shook Robinson’s hand, leaving the young man with a sense of hope and personal destiny he had never felt before.

“We knew something that day of new possibilities,” recounted Robinson. “Dr. King had this wonderful capacity to see through the dark shadows of time into a distant past that few of us had any capacity to know anything about. He could see through mountains into the future as a great visionary.” Robinson went on to earn a law degree at Harvard University and to join the struggle for human rights in South Africa, the Caribbean and America. He is the founder of the Washington-based TransAfrica and TransAfrica Forum, two organizations that promote enlightened U.S. policies toward Africa and the Caribbean and seek to educate the American public about those policies. Robinson has written several books, including the national best seller, “The Debt—What America Owes to Blacks.”

During his address and a question-and-answer session, Robinson discussed his current efforts to obtain reparations for Blacks in the form of education and economic development rather than direct financial payments. He also examined the causes and implications of America’s burgeoning prison industrial complex.

The solutions for many of the nation’s problems will not come from Washington politicians, but rather from the bottom up in a new groundswell of support by young Americans, Robinson predicted.

“It is difficult to see things in your own time,” he said, “and I am afraid that much of America is missing the development of a social crisis that in the next 50 years could bring this society down upon itself.”