By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Raspberry was remembered Wednesday when three former colleagues discussed his life and work at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.
Raspberry, a native of Okolona, died July 17 at age 76. He had retired in 2005 after more than 40 years at the Washington Post, where he worked his way from teletype operator to columnist in just four years. An African-American, he was known especially for his writing about race and poverty, in which he offered praise, provocation and pragmatism.
Patricia Thompson, who led the discussion, is director of the Student Media Center at Ole Miss. She said the Post was very much a racist institution when Raspberry started as a teletype operator in 1962.
“He persevered and succeeded,” she said. “First he became a reporter; then he was an editor; then he became a columnist. He and a few others of his generation brought new perspectives and new voices to mainstream media.”
Thompson’s first job out of journalism school was at the Post, where she said Raspberry and a few other black pioneers encouraged and helped younger black reporters.
“They went out of their way to nurture us, to encourage us, to celebrate us when we got front-page stories,” she recalled. “They invited us to their homes; they introduced us to the movers and shakers in town. They gave us feedback on our work.”
Milton Coleman, senior editor at the Post, worked with Raspberry for many years. He said being the son of teachers shaped Raspberry’s world in ways that he attempted to share through his work.
“To understand Bill and what made him unique, you’ve got to go back to Okolona, to Bill’s family, to that time of Jim Crow and to the importance that his family placed on education,” Coleman said. “That was the Okolona lesson for Bill.”
Raspberry never forgot, as he pondered problems and sometimes offered solutions to his readers, that some people in his hometown don’t have the kinds of influences he got as a youngster. To try to remedy that lack, he founded and, for several years personally funded, the Baby Steps program to equip young parents with the skills they need to help their children to be ready for school when they reach kindergarten age. The program, now funded by the Kellogg Foundation, currently reaches some 70 families.
Baby Steps Director Ivy Lovelady said of Raspberry, “His biggest legacy is that it is important to give back to those most needy. He chose to give back to his hometown.”
Coleman said one of Raspberry’s greatest legacies as a journalist was his search for solutions.
“Bill Raspberry tried to bring people together rather than push them apart,” he said. “I am so hopeful from this room and many others across the country that people are becoming journalists who will bring people together, because right now … this is an incredibly divided country.”