By Joe Rutherford/NEMS Daily Journal
One of Northeast Mississippi’s most acclaimed native sons, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry of Okolona, died Tuesday in Washington of complications from prostate cancer.
Raspberry, 76, wrote a column for 40 years for The Washington Post before retiring in 2005. He won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
In recent years, he had returned to his hometown of Okolona on a regular basis as he spearheaded the formation and funding of “Baby Steps,” a program designed to help low-income mothers learn how to prepare their children for success in school.
His column was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers, including the Daily Journal, and he earned a reputation as a reasoned, thoughtful, open-minded commentator on issues of education, poverty, crime and race. He was one of the first black journalists to gain a wide following in the mainstream press.
Raspberry, reared in the home of his parents, educators James L. and Willie Tucker Raspberry, always emphasized the importance of education.
“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.”
He left segregated Mississippi in 1952 to attend the University of Indianapolis and began his long journalism career in 1958 working for the Indianapolis Recorder, a black-readership newspaper.
Raspberry said in a 1994 Daily Journal story about him and his family that books and learning were a major part of growing up in his parents’ home.
“It was simply basic to enjoy what was going on in the world and reading for pleasure. They read fiction. They read religious works. It almost got to be a habit with us, and I think once you start, once you learn that you can pick up knowledge from the printed page, it becomes a little bit addictive,” Raspberry said.
Okolona College, where his parents taught and which he attended through high school, was an institution owned and operated by the Episcopal Church as a high school and two-year college. It closed in the 1960s after operating for 61 years.
He served in the U.S. Army 1960-62, and in 1962 joined The Washington Post, first as a library assistant, then as a teletype operator. Among his first major reporting assignments was coverage of the civil rights March on Washington in 1963.
Raspberry never again lived in Mississippi, but he returned frequently to visit his parents and other relatives in Okolona. His mother, who is 106, survives and lives with one of Raspberry’s siblings in Indianapolis.
“I had visited with him Father’s Day in his home in Washington,” said Okolona Mayor Louise Cole, a cousin of Raspberry. “I was with his mother 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 and more importantly he shared that life with everyone … He was glad to give back to this community, because it was home to him and shaped him tremendously.”
Baby Steps was initiated in 2002 by Raspberry, with heavy infusions of his own money, as a way to encourage and support families in preparing children age 5 and under to enter kindergarten.
“William Raspberry repeatedly came back and forth to Okolona to make sure this program was established and working as he envisioned,” said Carla James, program site coordinator for Baby Steps in Okolona. “This was the way he gave back to his community, and that work will continue.”
Baby Steps received a $1 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2010. The funds helped Baby Steps and the school district produce a model curriculum for early childhood education in pre-education facilities through the elementary school classes.
“When we met, I loved the idea of Baby Steps,” said Margaret DeMoville, chairwoman of the board of the Bank of Okolona. “He was a visionary, and what he did with Baby Steps was phenomenal. We at the bank became and remain deeply supportive of Baby Steps.”
Speaking at the CREATE Foundation State of the Region meeting in Tupelo in 2010, Raspberry emphasized the critical importance of the home to educational success. It was that belief that inspired Raspberry to create Baby Steps.
“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.
Former Gov. William Winter, who said he knew Raspberry’s parents before he knew the journalist, called him “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.”
Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Sr., a longtime Raspberry friend, said, “He was a fine man and wonderful Mississippian, and always a perfect gentleman.”
Reed said Raspberry was “so reasonable, so progressive. He is the kind of commentator we need more of now. I held him in highest regard.”
Funeral arrangements have not been announced. Cole said a memorial service will probably be held in Okolona in a few weeks.
Floyd Ingram of the Chickasaw Journal, Chris Kieffer of the Daily Journal and The Associated Press contributed to this article.