James Robinson

“The most important task in a shrinking world is the bringing of people into contact with peoples across all the crumbling barriers of nation, culture and race.”
Dr. James Robinson, inspirational founder, Canadian Crossroads International

It was a radical message for racially divided America in the late fifties, one that Dr. James Robinson challenged Canadians and Americans to embrace. Based on his vision, Robinson founded Operations Crossroads Africa in 1958. It was the first volunteer cooperation program of its kind. Dr. Robinson described Operation Crossroads Africa as “a hard hitting, honest program” where North Americans worked with Africans on grassroots projects in the independent nations emerging across Africa.” It was a project for “farsighted young men and women of stout hearts, receptive but tough minds, willing hands, humble but loving spirits.” By living and working together, youth would build “bridges of friendship to Africa” and discover a "crossroads" of cultures and personal experience.

Dr. Robinson had no notion of sending experts to the developing world to fix things. The volunteer exchange was a means of addressing larger systematic issues of racism, intolerance and inequity, one that could powerfully affect international understanding and cooperation.

Crossroaders, as the volunteers came to be known, were to accompany Africans on their journey to independence by building infrastructure — teaching in communities where there were no teachers, building schools and community centres, working alongside Africans in community service and in the process building understanding and friendship.

In a country divided by racism and intolerance, he brought black and white together to work for a common purpose. Dr. Robinson championed “one world” that cut across colour lines and cultural differences. He believed people were "fundamentally more similar than dissimilar.” He considered it a duty and a privilege to work for a more equitable and sustainable world.

The grandson of an African slave, James Robinson was born into poverty in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1907. Walking to school was often treacherous, as it involved crossing territories run by black and white gangs. He worked a variety of odd jobs to support his family – at the barber shop, at the bowling alley – often finishing his shift well after midnight. He battled with father to complete high school, who thought it was a “waste of time.” Robinson left home to keep the peace with his father, but persevered, graduating at the age of 22. He dreamed of attending university, but was flat broke. His life changed when he received a small bursary to attend Lincoln College. He continued studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, choosing one of the few paths open to African-Americans at the time – becoming a minister. With the support of the Presbyterian Church, he travelled extensively throughout Europe, Asia and Africa in the early 1950s, speaking of “common hopes and dreams for a better world.” The tour shaped his passion for linking North Americans and Africans in a common cause.

The civil rights crusader came to Canada in 1960, where he spoke at church conferences and university campuses, urging people to support in Africa’s democracy movement.

Early Crossroaders remember well Dr. Robinson’s stirring words some fifty years ago. “We just hung on to every word he said,” recalls Justice Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, a Crossroader who went to Senegal and Togo in the early sixties.” Dr. Robinson had an immediate effect on me,” remembers CCI founding member Dr. Alan Lane.”I was greatly taken by Dr. Robinson …he was a great orator.”

During his Canadian travels, Dr. Robinson spoke at a men’s church conference in Muskoka, Ontario. His commitment for Africa had such a deep impact on a group of soon to be Crossroaders, including Dr. Lane, they took up a collection and raised $5,000 to support Operations Crossroads Africa – a considerable sum in those days. Dr. Robinson thanked them for their fundraising efforts, but promptly returned it, challenging them to get personally involved. In 1960 the Canadian Committee was formed.

“This is where James Robinson is brilliant,” says Michael Cooke, former CCI Executive Director. “These guys were blown away by his speech, but he tells them, ‘I don’t want your $5,000. You find me Canadians and you pay for them and I’ll take them.’ He could have taken the $5,000 and if he had, there would be no Crossroads today.”

Dr. Robinson's vision received international recognition. President Kennedy commended Operations Crossroads Africa, calling it the progenitor of the Peace Corps. Crossroads fervour caught on quickly in Canada. Throughout the 1960s, small groups of Canadian volunteers organized overseas placements for Canadians, driven by the commitment to create a more equitable and sustainable world. In 1969, Canadian Crossroads International was incorporated as a stand alone organization.

More than 8,000 Canadian and Southern volunteers have participated in Canadian Crossroads International in the past fifty years. Many describe their Crossroads experience as transformative, one that had a profound impact on their life choices.

And while the world has changed considerably since 1958, Dr. Robinson’s radical vision of one world —interconnected and interdependent — remains at the heart of Crossroads work.

 

Click here to download a clip of Dr. Robinson speaking in 1960.