Columnist William Raspberry, a Okolona native, dies

By Floyd Ingram/Chickasaw Journal

William Raspberry, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, died Tuesday at age 76 of prostate cancer, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Raspberry was a native of Okolona and upon retirement worked to establish the Baby Steps Program to help promote education in Chickasaw County.
“I had visited with him father’s day in his home in Washington,” said Okolona Mayor Louise Floyd-Cole, a cousin of Raspberry. “I was with his mother, who is 106, in Indianapolis this week and we knew this was expected, but it still hurts.”
Cole said her older cousin took his talent and gift for writing as far as it could go.
“I told family recently that Bill led such a phenomenal life, even after growing up in the harshest of circumstances in Okolona,” said Cole. “He traveled the world, met with heads of state but more importantly he shared that life with everyone.”
Cole also pointed out Raspberry returned to Okolona after he retired and created Baby Steps, a program aimed at helping parents and kids overcome obstacles in their life through information and education.
“He was glad to give back to this community, because it was home to him and shaped him tremendously,” said Cole.
Speaking at the CREATE Foundation State of the Region meeting in Tupelo in 2010, Raspberry said while high-quality superintendents and principals, skilled teachers and large school budgets are great, a more important factor for educational success is the homes where children are raised.
“Show me a home where learning and education are central and valued and where parents are responsible and competent at child-rearing, and I will show you a home of a good student,” Raspberry said. “Show me a school with a high proportion of students from these homes, and I’ll show you a good school.”
It was that belief that inspired Raspberry to create Baby Steps, which mentors parents of children age 5 and younger.
“A lot of parents love their children deeply and don’t have a clue what to do for their children unless they are taught,” he said.
Cole said a memorial service will probably be held in Okolona in a few weeks with the exact time and place to be determined.
Raspberry, whose fiercely independent views illuminated conflicts concerning education, poverty, crime and race, was one of the first black journalists to gain a wide following in the mainstream press.
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.
“Bill Raspberry inspired a rising generation of African-American columnists and commentators who followed in his path, including me,” said Clarence Page, a Pulitzer-winning columnist with the Chicago Tribune.
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 for many years at Okolona College, an Episcopal-affiliated school that closed its doors in 1967. 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.”
Former Gov. William Winter, governor in 1982 when the state’s Education Reform Act passed, said he knew Raspberry’s parents before he knew the man he called “one of Mississippi’s most distinguished native sons.
“He was one of the most courageous, most compassionate and most committed people I have ever known…I don’t know of anyone whose friendship I have valued more through the years,” Winter said.
The date and time of Raspberry’s funeral have not been announced but will be published on as soon as they are made available.

The Associated Press, Chris Kieffer and Joe Rutherford contributed to this story.

Click video to hear audio