Obituary: William Raspberry / Longtime columnist won Pulitzer Prize
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William Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for The Washington Post who for 39 years in more than 200 newspapers brought a moderate voice to social issues, including race relations -- sometimes to the ire of civil rights leaders -- died Tuesday at his home in Washington. He was 76.
His wife, Sondra Raspberry, who confirmed the death, said Mr. Raspberry had prostate cancer, The Post reported.
Mr. Raspberry wrote his column for The Post from 1966 to 2005. Initially under the title "Potomac Watch" and later under his own name, it steered clear of Washington's power brokers to focus on street violence, drug abuse, criminal justice, poverty, parenting, education and civil rights, often quoting ordinary people he interviewed and asserting his belief in individual responsibility in dealing with social issues.
"Words matter," he wrote in a 1993 column about the raw lyrics of rap music. "And because I know words matter, I wish my children, and kids younger than my children, would get back to innocent, hopeful lyrics. I wish their music was more about love and less graphically about intercourse. I wish their songs could be less angry and 'victimized' and more about building a better world."
Mr. Raspberry defied conventional labels. In 1974, Time magazine wrote that he had "emerged as the most respected black voice on any white U.S. newspaper."
"Neither a Pollyanna nor a raging militant," Time continued, "he considers the merits rather than the ideology of any issue. Not surprisingly, his judgments regularly nettle the Pollyannas and militants."
NAACP officials were nettled by a 1989 column in which Mr. Raspberry criticized civil rights leaders as dwelling on racism rather than pressing for practical solutions to the problems faced by blacks.
Mr. Raspberry won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1994. That year, the National Association of Black Journalists presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
"Raspberry's clarity of thought and his insistence on speaking the truth as he sees it -- even when others disagree -- have kept his column fresh, unpredictable and uncommonly wise," the citation said.
William J. Raspberry was born on Oct. 12, 1935, in the small Mississippi town of Okolona, where, he said, "We had two of everything -- one for whites and one for blacks." His parents, James and Willie Mae Raspberry, were schoolteachers.
Mr. Raspberry graduated from Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis) in 1960 with a degree in history. But his reporting career had already started in his freshman year with a summer job at The Indianapolis Recorder, a weekly newspaper primarily for African-Americans.
In 1962, after serving as a public information officer in the Army, Mr. Raspberry was hired by The Post as a teletypist. But when an editor spotted his writing talent, he was promoted to reporter and was soon covering civil rights issues and turmoil in black communities. His reporting on the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles earned him the Capital Press Club's Journalist of the Year award. The next year he began writing a column on local issues; it moved to the paper's op-ed page in 1970.
Mr. Raspberry taught journalism at Duke University for more than 10 years. He retired from The Post in 2005 and afterward organized an educational foundation, for low-income families in his Mississippi hometown, financing it out of his own pocket.
In one of his last columns, he returned to his theme of individual responsibility, declaring that "father absence is the bane of the black community."
"What is happening to the black family in America," he wrote, "is the sociological equivalent of global warming: easier to document than to reverse, inconsistent in its near-term effect -- and disastrous in the long run."
Even though Mr. Raspberry "often wrote about race, he nevertheless transcended race," Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Post, said in an interview in June. "He made sense of the issues that roiled the community."
First Published July 18, 2012 12:00 am