By Lloyd Gray
William Raspberry stopped appearing on Washington TV talk shows, he said, because they always wanted him to act mad even when he wasn’t.
Raspberry, the venerable Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from Okolona who died last week, was the antithesis of today’s dominant political catfighters: Civil, thoughtful, reasonable, and willing to give the other side its due – even join the other side if its facts were convincing.
He was what has become the rarest of breeds: An independent, unpredictable pundit who saw every issue through the lens of experience, evidence and reason – mixed with an ample dose of compassion – rather than through rigid ideology or partisanship.
He looked for solutions to problems from wherever they might come, and he had the ability to set aside preconceived notions about people and ideas and assess them on their merits. He sought common ground, not argumentative advantage.
Reasonableness has never been the coin of the realm in politics or public policy discourse, but it is in particularly short supply these days. Everybody is supposed to take sides, dig in, not give an inch, and while they’re at it, impugn the motives of the opposition. William Raspberry understood that that’s a sure recipe for governmental and societal dysfunction.
Raspberry quit writing columns several years ago, and his nationwide audience was the poorer for it. He was, in my view, the most sensible and valuable national newspaper columnist we had for many years.
It had nothing to with his being a Mississippian – or maybe it did. It certainly had to do with his being reared by remarkable parents – his 106-year-old mother, Willie Tucker Raspberry, is still alive – in an era when an oppressively segregated Mississippi squelched the dreams and ambitions of most black people. His parents would have none of it. Teachers both, they taught him to value education – formal and lifelong – to work hard, and to aim high. That he achieved what he did, he would always say, was the result of their gift to him.
He knew that kind of gift was rare, even more so for kids mired in poverty today. So he put his own time and resources into a program he hoped would make a difference for children in his hometown who otherwise would be disadvantaged from the start, and likely for life. “Baby Steps” in Okolona stands as his enduring legacy in the place he still thought of as home and visited regularly.
It also gets to the heart of his recognition, expressed in his columns and in the many speeches he made through the years, that when you get right down to it, the path out of most of our social and educational problems and pathologies winds through the home. It’s there that the foundation, for good or ill, is laid.
Raspberry the man was no different from Raspberry the columnist – intelligent, plain-spoken, witty; curious, committed and hopeful; respectful of the ideas and opinions of others. In other words, a model of what we sorely lack in public life today.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.