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Pulitzer-winning Washington Post columnist William Raspberry dies at 76
First Published Jul 17 2012 10:02 am • Last Updated Jul 17 2012 10:55 am

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.

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Raspberry wrote an opinion column for The Post for nearly 40 years before retiring in 2005. More than 200 newspapers, including The Salt Lake Tribune, 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, 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, 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, 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."

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," lawyer, civil rights advocate and political adviser Vernon E. Jordan Jr. 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 » 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.


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"Education is the one best hope black Americans have for a decent future," 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, 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 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, 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 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, 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 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.) 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.

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, 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.

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