Local journalism won today.
For his thought-provoking columns addressing the history of racism in Virginia and the prevalence of white supremacy through Confederate monuments, Michael Paul Williams of the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch has been awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary.
The Pulitzer Board, made up of 18 industry leaders and editors, awarded Williams for what they described as “penetrating and historically insightful columns” that served as a north star for the city of Richmond, a former Confederate capital, during a time of racial reckoning across the country.
“Immensely gratifying. Surreal. Overwhelming. But also a reminder that there is so much work that remains to be done by journalists, in Richmond and nationwide,” Williams said about the Pulitzer recognition in an emailed statement to Poynter.
“‘Only as good as the next story’ (or column) is a cliché. But clichés become that way for a reason: They are grounded in truths that bear repeating. So that unfinished work, and our task of prodding ourselves and the powers that be to keep at it, is humbling.”
“The oppression of black folks will not end with the removal of these monuments,” Williams wrote in his “The Lost Cause is dead” column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Racism is a system that touches every person and every aspect of our lives.”
Williams’ work includes a thought-provoking piece criticizing city officials’ efforts to preserve the state’s Robert E. Lee monument, which a city circuit court judge said belonged “to the people.” Williams firmly proclaimed he’s “one of those people, and I want it to come down.”
His commentary proved timeless, as debates surrounding Confederate monuments in the city of Richmond continued in the year after the murder of George Floyd. His work is prevalent in a town with a rich history of racism dating back to the Civil War.
The recognition marks Williams’ first Pulitzer Prize. He is a multiple-time winner of the Virginia Press Association column writing award, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s second Pulitzer winner after Virginius Dabney won the award in 1948 for Editorial Writing.
“Affirmations are sustenance,” Williams said. “So right now, it feels like an affirmation not just for me, but for the RTD and for the city of Richmond, during this period of much-needed transformation.”
Finalists for the 2021 award were Melinda Henneberger of The Kansas City Star, whose columns addressed failures in the criminal justice system; and Roy S. Johnson of Alabama Media Group, for his columns on race.