Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, went to the podium Saturday night and fired away.
Seated at their dinner tables, the more than 1,000 people applauded. They whooped. They gave him a standing ovation.
The subjects of all this passion were the African problems of the day -- a black African political leader "languishing in a South African dungeon"; America spending "more on pet food than on foreign assistance to Africa"; 300 American corporations investing in South Africa; and Haitian refugees cast "to the merciless seas of south Florida -- it's shameful."
Robinson did mention one domestic issue -- Ronald Reagan. "I'm frightened at the prospect of Ronald Reagan," he said. "If he does [win], it will be because millions of black Americans voted by not voting."
Later, his brother, ABC national newscaster Max Robinson, made his way through the crowd thronging around Randall. They exchanged a few words before Randall was swept off in a sea of well-wishers. Max stood there a few minutes alone. "I always feel odd at things my brother is involved in," said Max Robinson, sober-faced. "I was sitting there at the table with my wife, feeling the strain to be a journalist . . ." He smiled. "And all the while being very much in support of him."
At the third annual dinner for TransAfrica, a black lobby for Africa and the Caribbean, the food was not spectacular, the night was too warm, and some of the speeches lengthy and fairly academic. Nonetheless, the dinner guests paid $75 to come and sit through it all, listening sympathetically and only occasionally checking their watches.
Politicians, business leaders, State Department and AID types, a few television people (Rene Poussaint was emcee) and assorted other black professionals -- many young -- made the TransAfrica fund-raiser at the Washington Hilton look as time-honored and traditional as a dinner for the NAACP. Lots of African ambassadors to the United States came, and companies like Johnson Products, U.S.Steel and Philip Morris Inc., to name just a few, bought tables. So did the NAACP.
"I want people to know there are some of us who want to see our policy toward Africa changed," said American Airlines pilot and Texas state legislator Al Price, who went to great trouble to fly here between two days of work. "Africa is going to be by Africans, and not by people chosen here to rule people who don't want them."
"A lot of the people here support the Urban League dinner," said Washington Urban League President Howard Davis. "It's a lot of organizaitons supporting organizations."
Davis had no new information or comment about the shooting of Urban League President Vernon Jordan in Fort Wayne, Ind., earlier this week.
"Almost everyone I've talked to has asked about it," said Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher, TransAfrica's chairman of the board. "There's been a lot of concern expressed." Hatcher added that "to rule out conspiracy, to rule out the connection to Vernon's civil rights activities, is a mistake." t
Said Mayor Marion Barry Saturday night, "a few people told me I should be careful." He shrugged. "I can't worry about it any more than I ever did. I don't think I can do anything about someone who wants to kill me."
The D.C. budget crisis is more on Barry's mind these days. "We're working on the budget every day. Got some money?" he deadpanned.
"I think TransAfrica is on the right track," said Liberian Ambassador H.R.W. Brewer. "It's about time that Afro-Americans got involved. We know what Jewish people have done for Israel. It's a shame that in a country with 30 million blacks, there's no strong Africa policy."
Of the various topics discussed Saturday night, the change of governments in Liberia -- which was accompanied by group executions -- was notably absent, at least from the speeches. "What you have to remember," said Brewer, "is that these are internal affairs and I don't think TransAfrica or any other group would like to interfere with how change comes to Liberia. I think TransAfrica has accepted it as it is -- otherwise we wouldn't be here tonight," he said, with a laugh.
Actually, TransAfrica -- which only last October threw a reception for visiting Liberian President William R. Tolbert, since killed in the coup -- sent a cable to the new Liberian head of state, Samuel K. Doe, shortly after he took over. "We understood the reason for revolution," said Randall Robnison Saturday night. "But we asked him in the prosecution of the revolution to observe due process of law and use restraint."
One of the triumphs Robinson cited in his speech was the formation of the black government of Zimbabwe "TransAfrica harnessed a number of the organizations that spoke out on that issue," he said.
One of the highest priority issues for TransAfrica this year is South Africa, a topic emphasized by Saturday night's main speaker, Salim Ahmed Salim, Tanzanian ambassador and president of the U.N. General Assembly. Salim called for the United States to "disengage itself from its extensive relations with South Africa" as a way of helping bring an end to apartheid there.
And on the issue of the new secretary of state, both Robinson and Mayor Hatcher were, in the latter's words, "cautiously optimistic," Hatcher called Muskie "one of the more progressive people in the Congress toward cities -- one we as mayors could always go to. Now it's a matter of waiting to see what in fact happens."
Robinson said the TransAfrica leadership expected to meet with Muskie in the near future. Vance had been "accessible," said Robinson. "But there's still $2 billion worth of investments in South Africa and that is the support of tyranny. We expressed that concern to Vance and nothing changed."