William Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, died Tuesday at his home in Washington, D.C. of prostate cancer.
He was 76.
When Raspberry became a columnist at The Post, the only syndicated black columnist in mainstream media was Carl Rowan. While some media critics would try to link their styles and political leanings, Raspberry was the kind of writer who could not be put into a box.
“He was conservative sometimes and liberal sometimes. He could make black people mad, sometimes he made me mad, but other times he could be supportive. We were different but we were both trying in our way to make a difference with our writing,” Dorothy Gilliam, a retired Washington Post columnist and longtime colleague of William Raspberry, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
“First of all, he was a brilliant writer; you talk about the mechanics of writing, he knew how to take tough subjects and state them in a way that wouldn’t be as offensive to readers,” said Gilliam, who currently runs Prime Movers, a program based at George Washington University that introduces high school students to journalism and encourages them to consider careers in the field.
“He was just so clever and so able to just master all the nuances of language.”
For nearly 40 years until his retirement in 2005, Raspberry wrote a column for The Post, but he worked his way up through the ranks at the newspaper, starting as a teletype operator in 1962.
For 13 years, starting before his retirement from The Post, Raspberry also served as the Knight Professor of the practice of communications and journalism at Duke University, commuting weekly from D.C. to the Duke campus to teach on subjects that included social policy and politics as well as journalism.
Flags were lowered to half-staff on campus Tuesday in honor of Raspberry.
The native Mississippian’s style was decidedly low-key and was known for a great sense of humor and a willingness not to take himself too seriously. He was never loud or combative in speech or in his writing. According to The Post, “He did not consider himself a political partisan and even stopped appearing on argumentative news-talk shows because, as he said in 2006, ‘they force you to pretend to be mad even when you’re not.’”
He took a lot of heat, especially during the Civil Rights movement, because he chose to write about the events from the neutral position of a reporter rather than express his feelings.
But he supported black colleagues who were challenging the status quo in the newsroom.
Richard Prince, a former Post staffer who writes the Journal-Isms column for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and a member of a group called the Metro 7, a group of reporters who filed a discrimination complaint against the paper in 1972 before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said Raspberry stepped up when it counted.
“Bill came from a tradition that was different from what we more militant, younger black journalists brought to the table. We respected him and others in the previous generation, but in 1972, when it came time to challenge the Post over its institutional racism, we nine Metro reporters [later seven], in our 20s, decided to leave the older journalists out of it.”
He then cited a passage from Roger Wilkins’ memoir, “A Man’s Life,” which describes how the older black journalists reacted:
“A few days later, Robert C. Maynard, who was the Post‘s senior black reporter, on leave in California, came through town. Hollie West, the music critic, Bill Raspberry, the columnist, and I took Maynard out for drinks. Eventually conversation turned to the question of the younger black writers. There was general agreement that the complaint had merit. We also agreed that we ought to find some way to express our support for them. Raspberry was the only one who had some hesitation about the idea. But that was squelched when Maynard turned to him and said, ‘Look! If your little brother was down the street and you saw him getting his ass kicked by some big son of a bitch, wouldn’t you go down there and help your little brother out?’ That sealed it.”
“Bill Raspberry was among the first to sign a letter presented by management by the other blacks in the newsroom,” Prince said.
William Raspberry helped countless journalists in countless ways, from assisting a colleague with phrasing to job leads to the perfect places to have cocktails with magnificent views, which he encountered over his years of international travel with his devoted wife, Sondra, and close friends, retired New York Times journalist Paul Delaney, and the late Vincent Cohen, who broke the color barrier at the Justice Department, and their wives.
“He touched countless people everywhere he went,” Delaney said. “With people he didn’t even know he could be funny with them.”
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday, July 26 at the National Cathedral in Washington, followed by a reception at The Washington Post. Contributions are also welcomed to Raspberry’s pet project, Baby Steps, Inc., a foundation that helps adults develop strong parenting skills and prepares young children for a lifetime of achievement.
Jackie Jones, a veteran journalist and journalism educator, is director of Jones Coaching LLC, a career transformation firm.