William Raspberry dies at 76: Washington Post columnist wrote about social issues including race, poverty

July 17, 2012

William Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post whose fiercely independent views illuminated conflicts concerning education, poverty, crime and race, and who was one of the first black journalists to gain a wide following in the mainstream press, died July 17 at his home in Washington. He was 76.

He had prostate cancer, said his wife, Sondra Raspberry.

Mr. Raspberry wrote an opinion column for The Post for nearly 40 years before retiring in 2005. More than 200 newspapers carried his syndicated columns, which were filtered through the prism of his experience growing up in the segregated South.

His writings were often provocative but seldom predictable. Although he considered himself a liberal, Mr. Raspberry often bucked many of the prevailing pieties of liberal orthodoxy. He favored integration but opposed busing children to achieve racial balance. He supported gun control but — during a time when the District seemed to be a free-fire zone for drug sellers — he could understand the impulse to shoot back.

When strident voices were shouting for attention, Mr. Raspberry often favored a moderate tone. 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.”

Instead of following other pundits to Capitol Hill, Mr. Raspberry looked at another side of Washington: the problems facing ordinary people, sometimes voiced through an imaginary D.C. cabdriver — simply called “the cabbie” — who was a recurring figure in his columns.

“From the day Bill Raspberry wrote his first Post column, his advice was as wise and his voice as clear as anyone’s in Washington,” Donald E. Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co., said in an interview. “To the city, Bill’s columns brought 40 years of smart, independent judgment.”

Mr. Raspberry stood slightly apart from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which he viewed not as a participant but from the detached perspective of a reporter. Because his views did not always conform to his readers’ expectations, he received pointed criticism from the right and the left.

“He was viewed as a truth-teller,” Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a lawyer, civil rights advocate and political adviser, said in an interview. “I am sure that I disagreed with him on a number of things. He had a way of telling you to go to hell and making you look forward to the trip.”

Self-reliance and education

Mr. Raspberry derived some of his core principles from a bedrock belief in self-reliance and the importance of education. He often cited the example of his parents, both of whom were teachers. He challenged prominent civil rights figures to put their words into action to help build a better world for the poor and disenfranchised.

“Education is the one best hope black Americans have for a decent future,” Mr. Raspberry wrote in a 1982 column. “The civil rights leadership, for all its emphasis on desegregating schools, has done very little to improve them.”

Anger at the forces that caused racism was fine, Mr. Raspberry argued, but anger in itself did not solve problems. Recalling his own childhood in Mississippi, he recognized that children could thrive even when poverty was just beyond the window.

“It’s not racism that’s keeping our children from learning, it’s something much nearer home than that,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 2003. “We need to remember that the most influential resource a child can have is a parent who cares. And we need to admit that sometimes parents are the missing ingredient.”

When Mr. Raspberry began writing a column on local matters for The Post in 1966, the only nationally syndicated black columnist in the general press was Carl T. Rowan. In 1970, Mr. Raspberry’s column moved to the paper’s op-ed page.

“Bill Raspberry inspired a rising generation of African American columnists and commentators who followed in his path, including me,” Clarence Page, a Pulitzer-winning columnist with the Chicago Tribune, told The Post. He added that Mr. Raspberry and Rowan “blazed a trail for the rest of us, not only as journalists but as voices of courage against the narrow ideologies of the left or right.”

As a columnist, Mr. Raspberry disagreed with the journalistic credo of “cynical coldheartedness masquerading as objectivity,” he told Editor & Publisher magazine in 1994. Instead, he believed members of the press could “care about the people they report on and still retain the capacity to tell the story straight.”

When Mr. Raspberry won the Pulitzer for commentary in 1994, he was the second African American columnist to achieve the honor. (Page was the first, in 1989.) Mr. Raspberry’s Pulitzer-winning columns covered a range of topics, from female genital mutilation in Africa to urban violence, to musings on the legacies of civil rights leaders.

Mr. Raspberry drew analogies between Somalia, where U.S. troops were deployed at the time, and violent sections of the District, where — as in Mogadishu — heavily armed young men in fast vehicles controlled vast stretches of the city.

“How different are parts of Somalia from parts of the United States?” he wrote. “And how much more like Somalia would the United States become if the gun-rights people have their way?”

In another column, Mr. Raspberry appeared, at first glance, to deliver a rant about hip-hop music. But he made an unexpected turn, showing how tastes in music reflected the changing realities of young people’s lives.

“My children . . . easily tick off four, five, six friends who have died in the past few years,” he wrote. “Three were homicides — shot down either over drugs or over some offense that would have cost a member of my generation a bloody nose at most.

. . . And we worry about song lyrics?”

‘I grew up in apartheid’

William James Raspberry was born Oct. 12, 1935, in the northeastern Mississippi town of Okolona. He was one of five children of James and Willie Mae Raspberry. His father taught shop and his mother taught English at a high school and a two-year college for African American students. He often cited his parents and the small academy in Okolona as crucial influences on his life.

“I grew up in apartheid,” he told the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., in 1996. “And yet it never induced my parents to teach us anything else than that we were responsible for our own behavior, for our own minds.”

Mr. Raspberry left Mississippi to attend Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis). In college, he worked at the Indianapolis Recorder, a weekly newspaper geared toward black audiences.

After graduating in 1958, he served as a public information officer with the Army. In 1962, Mr. Raspberry was hired as a Teletype operator by The Post. Within months, he began working as one of the first black reporters for the newspaper’s Metro desk.

Seeking a way to stand out, he recalled in a 2005 interview with NPR, “I started asking myself, ‘What is it I know that the other guys don’t know? What am I better at?’ And my thought was that I’ve had a couple decades being black, and they haven’t.”

Mr. Raspberry made a name for himself in 1965, when The Post dispatched him to cover riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles. A year later, he was a columnist.

After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, Mr. Raspberry wrote a series of dispatches from the strife-torn streets of Washington, chronicling a city on fire.

Mr. Raspberry was known as a careful monitor of racial politics, but some readers were incensed in 1990, when he appeared to voice grudging respect for the polarizing Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. A year earlier, Mr. Raspberry had excoriated what he called the “gratuitous antisemitism” of Farrakhan and some of his supporters.

“Blacks in particular are at pains to force America to face up to racism, blatant and subtle, and to demand that others be sensitive to our special concerns,” Mr. Raspberry wrote. “Is it too much to suggest that those who demand sensitivity have a duty to practice it?”

Survivors include Mr. Raspberry’s wife of 45 years, Sondra Dodson Raspberry of Washington; three children, Patricia D. Raspberry and Mark J. Raspberry, both of Washington, and Angela Raspberry Jackson of Detroit; a foster son, Reginald Harrison of Manassas; his 106-year-old mother, Willie Mae Tucker Raspberry of Indianapolis; a sister; and a brother.

Mr. Raspberry taught journalism for more than 10 years at Duke University and received more than 15 honorary doctorates. A collection of his columns, “Looking Backward at Us,” was published in 1991, and he received awards from the National Press Club and the National Association of Black Journalists.

In retirement, Mr. Raspberry devoted much of his time to an educational foundation, Baby Steps, that he organized in his hometown in Mississippi. He funded the project for low-income parents and children from his own pocket.

After writing more than 5,000 opinion columns, Mr. Raspberry said in a speech at the University of Virginia in 2006, he had learned two important lessons.

The first, he said, “is that in virtually every public controversy, most thoughtful people secretly believe both sides.”

“The second, which has kept my confidence from turning into arrogance, is that it is entirely possible for you to disagree with me without being, on that account, either a scoundrel or a fool.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.