Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry dies at 76

The Washington Post | The Maynard Institute's Journal-isms | The New York Times | AJR

Former Washington Post columnist William Raspberry died
. He was 76 and had prostate cancer. "He had a way of
telling you to go to hell and making you look forward to the trip,"
Vernon Jordan tells The Post's Matt Schudel.

Raspberry was one of the paper's first black reporters on its metro
desk and became a columnist in 1966. He won a Pulitzer Prize for
commentary in 1994.

"I think the key thing about Bill Raspberry is what a singular voice
he was in the black community," said Juan Williams, who worked with
Raspberry at The Post. "I think it was Time magazine that once
described him as the Lone Ranger of columnists. I think the reason for
that is that even among black columnists of his generation he was so
unique in having the courage to speak honestly and openly about the
collapse of the black family."

Williams, reached by telephone, said Raspberry never quite moved into the Post's editorial-board offices. "He wanted his office to be a little away," Williams said. "He didn't want to be under the thumb of the editorial page editor. His office remained in the newsroom."

"Believe me," Williams said, "he saw himself as part of the newsroom."

Williams said Raspberry was a "trail blazer" for black columnists and
that personally, "he was much more of a friend and a mentor in the
sense of column writing, and I would say, for me, a conscience."

Raspberry, Williams said, would talk with him about writing: "how to
communicate effectively, thinking about issues in a very direct way."
Raspberry's plainspoken style "requires some courage," Williams said.

"He was so conversational and easy in his columns, people could
understate the critical force of what he was saying."

Post columnist Courtland Milloy says Raspberry "had a great sense of
humor, life saving, spirit lifting humor. I met him in 1975 and there
were times of high anxiety that went with being a black columnist at a
white newspaper in black city in a white metropolitan area. Bill could
make you laugh through it. No small feat."

In late June, The Post hosted a roast for Raspberry that raised funds for his BabySteps school in Raspberry's hometown of Okolona, Miss. Milloy wrote about BabySteps' work at the time:

The school, Baby Steps, teaches mostly low-income parents of preschoolers how to prepare their children for success in school — and life. In 2010, when Okolona’s public school system collapsed in failure and was taken over by the state, residents soon realized that what worked for toddlers could also help older students.

Richard Prince remembers a lunch given in Raspberry's honor in early June:

On June 5, Donald E. Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Co., gathered about a dozen of Raspberry's colleagues over the years for a lunch at the Post in Raspberry's honor. They told stories ranging from Raspberry's beginnings at the Post as a teletype operator to covering the 1965 Watts riots to Raspberry's work checking area police departments by telephone for news. There, he encountered a racist officer who no doubt did not realize he was speaking with a black journalist.

Richard Prince appears (left) with William Raspberry at the June benefit. (Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Raspberry "transcended race," former Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie told The New York Times' Dennis Hevesi. In a 1994 profile of Raspberry by Linda Fibich, Downie said the journalist connected with readers because of "his sense of sort of middle-class to upper-middle-class America. Black and white, but particularly black, which is a voice that is not much heard across America, particularly in the media."

The Post has a collection of Raspberry's columns here. In one of his last columns, Raspberry explained, in just 775 words, his evolution from a guy who "once enjoyed delivering the hard zinger" to someone who believed "talking about issues might actually make a positive difference, might move us an inch or two nearer common ground."

Can it be that trying to see the other guy's side simply takes too much of our time and energy? Sometimes I suspect that the desire to savage rather than convince an opponent stems from the nagging suspicion that just maybe we are on the wrong side of the logic. I mean, if you are convinced that your position is the correct one, why wouldn't you want to examine it and explain it in a way that might win a convert or two? Isn't that what this column-writing business is supposed to be about?

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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