By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — Bill Raspberry wore his eminence well. In a city full of preening, self-centered journalistic royalty, he was a warm and generous prince who never deluded himself into thinking he knew all the answers. He is desperately missed.
William James Raspberry, who died Tuesday at 76, will be remembered by history as a brave and intrepid pioneer. In 1966, when he wrote his first column for The Washington Post, there was really no model for him to imitate. Young black men did not speak their minds in the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers.
African-American readers were first stunned, then thrilled, to see their lives and views reflected in what had been a white male bastion. Raspberry was in the first wave of an invasion of outsiders — minorities and women — who transformed American journalism.
Anyone looking at his resume would have expected a forbidding man — a Pulitzer Prize that crowned his many awards, a distinguished teaching position at Duke University, enough honorary doctorates to paper a wall. But Raspberry was unfailingly approachable and always did more listening than preaching. Unlike so many prominent people in Washington, he genuinely wanted to know what others thought.
Perhaps that curiosity was what kept him at the top of his game for so long. Raspberry wrote his opinion column over four decades, appearing via syndication in more than 200 newspapers. The word “Herculean” comes to mind.
I once asked him how he worked. Did he have some kind of system? Choose his topics in advance? Stockpile “evergreen” columns, unrelated to the day’s news, for mornings when inspiration missed its scheduled appointment?
Not really, he replied. He just came into the office, thought for a while and got a sense of what was the right column for that day. Often, he told me, he wasn’t quite sure what he thought about the topic until he was well into the writing. I think those were the columns he enjoyed most, because they allowed him to look at his subject from all sides. He knew that holding an opinion did not automatically make all other opinions illegitimate.
He could also let out a mighty roar, however, as he did when he wrote about the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It wasn’t just black America that saw the videotape of Rodney King’s beating by four police officers, Raspberry wrote, and it wasn’t just black America “that heard a Simi Valley jury tell us that what we saw with our own eyes didn’t actually happen.” Why weren’t white officials and authority figures speaking out? “White America saw it, too,” he wrote, “and I’m waiting for responsible white leaders to tell me that Wednesday’s incomprehensible verdict outrages them as much as it outrages us; that the glib rationalization of the Simi Valley jurors doesn’t reflect white America’s view and that this whole business is an aberration, an isolated miscarriage of justice. White America needs to put a fence around this case, to quarantine it before it infects the whole of American justice.”
Raspberry was a mentor to generations of young journalists, not just at the Post but also through the National Association of Black Journalists and other organizations. He was a great teacher. I had the privilege of watching him interact with a class at Duke, where he taught for more than a decade (while continuing to write his column). He seemed to absorb the students’ energy and idealism like a sponge.
The one thing Raspberry never quite mastered was the art of being idle. “Retirement” meant nothing more than exchanging one all-absorbing mission for another: an ambitious project to make a difference in his hometown of Okolona, Miss., where many families were mired in multigenerational poverty and dysfunction.
He decided that early childhood education was where he could have the greatest impact, so he formed a nonprofit organization called Baby Steps to work with low-income families in preparing their young children for school. The program grew and evolved — supported by grants, donations and money from Raspberry’s own pocket — to become a potent and successful mechanism for change. Thanks to Raspberry, preschool boys and girls are receiving not just instruction but medical and dental care as well.
Bill Raspberry’s friends, colleagues and readers will all miss him terribly. But along with his family, it may be the children of Okolona who miss him most of all. What a tremendous legacy for an extraordinary — and extraordinarily good — man.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.