William J. Raspberry, the Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post columnist who died Tuesday of prostate cancer at his home in Washington, is already receiving all of the accolades he deserves as a great reporter and a member of the pioneering generation of black journalists at “mainstream” (translation, white-owned) newspapers. What made Bill a great journalist, however, was not his list of “firsts” but his personal integrity and a compassion that managed to be both open-hearted and tough-minded.
When Bill and I met in 1965 in the Post newsroom, he was already one of the paper’s first black journalists and I was one of the first women reporters working for the regular news section and not for what were then called the “society” pages. Bill made a point of showing me the ropes, telling me which editors were likely to obstruct my ambitions and which were likely to help. (Surprise, surprise, the newsmen who didn’t think blacks could make good reporters were also skeptical about “news hens” within their domain.)
I will always remember Bill’s remarks about an ornery, racist, woman-denigrating old white guy who also happened to be a terrific copy editor. “You can learn a lot from him,” Bill said, “and he’ll give you respect if you meet his standards. People can surprise you if you give them a chance.”
That was the essence of Bill. He was always willing to give people a chance even if he had to go the extra mile—because he was always more interested in what he could learn than in scoring points by climbing up on a moral high horse.
It now occurs to me that Bill’s unfailing personal sense of proportionality and fairness is the chief, essential quality that has steadily eroded in both the media and American public life for at least four decades.
Bill’s sensibilities were linked with a wicked sense of humor that did not always show in his columns. One of my most indelible memories of him was formed in the tragic year 1968, when Washington exploded in flames after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bill and I were assigned to the same car by the Post on the second night of rioting. He had covered the violence in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965, but we were both shaken by seeing similar furies unleashed in our own city and neighborhoods.
As we passed police checkpoints on that tense night, it occurred to us that teaming a black man with a white woman might not have been the smartest move on the part of our editors. “I guess the idea is you protect me if a white cop points a gun at me and I protect you if a black kid tries to pull you out of the car,” Bill said. I replied, “But what if the cop or the kid kills both of us because we’re together?” Bill had a quick comeback. “Just think of what a big story our deaths will be. The Post wins a Pulitzer.”
Bill and I never lost touch, even after I left Washington and the Post to write books. We had lunch for what I did not know would be the last time in October, when my brother was dying of pancreatic cancer in Washington. I now realize that Bill, who had already lived with cancer for years, must already have been quite sick himself.
We had never discussed religion, but Bill said he wasn’t at all sure he believed in an afterlife and he didn’t care whether there was one. “Apart from loving my wife and children,” he said, “the one thing I’ve wanted to accomplish in life is to help in the battle against ignorance. I’ve done everything I can to fight ignorance in this world, and I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks about me in some other world—if there is one.”
Bill’s detestation of ignorance impelled him to establish Baby Steps, a foundation in the impoverished area of rural Mississippi where he grew up. His program—financed out of his own pocket—was designed to help poor people learn how to prepare their children for school. It reflected Bill’s belief that this nation has many citizens, born with no educational or economic advantages, who nevertheless want to do right by the next generation—if only someone will show them the way.
One of Bill’s favorite poems was Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” written when Hughes was among the few black students at Columbia University in the 1920s. I quote it in part, because it summed up the values by which Bill lived.
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
At twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
Hear you, hear me—we two—you, me talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
Or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like
The same things folks like who are other races.
So will this page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
A part of you, instructor.
You are white—
Yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
Although you’re older—and white—
And somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
Farewell, my dear friend. It was an honor to know you and share a small part of a life animated by principles that are your true immortality.
Susan Jacoby, who wrote The Spirited Atheist column for "On Faith," is the author of "Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age ."