By NEMS Daily Journal
William Raspberry’s death Tuesday after a battle with cancer silences one of the most gifted and persuasive voices in American journalism during the past 50 years.
It reminds Mississippians that some of our state’s best and brightest had to leave home to fully discover and nurture great gifts that segregation and racism discouraged and in other ways sought to suppress.
Raspberry, a columnist for The Washington Post for 40 years, was an Okolona native who carefully analyzed, explained and explored many of the era’s most complex and troubling issues. He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1994, the highest public recognition in American journalism, affirming the clarity and reason that readers in more than 200 newspapers already recognized through his column’s syndication.
The Daily Journal was a longtime subscriber to his columns, and he was welcomed in our newsroom on several occasions when he came to visit family in Okolona or to fulfill public engagements in the area.
He retired in 2005, but he had already ensured that he gave back a lasting gift to the community in which he was reared by his educator parents.
Raspberry, collaborating with experts, consultants and teachers, established the program “Baby Steps” in Okolona to help young parents with young children learn and use the skills needed to empower children to succeed when they entered kindergarten.
Raspberry had written often and powerfully about the decline of strong family life, especially among people living in poverty, regardless of race. He knew first-hand from having grown up through high school in a segregated community how sharp the economic and educational divide usually was. His personal situation was different, with his parents encouraging learning at every turn, but he recognized that many others could not or would not be able go away and seek a better chance elsewhere.
Even as his journalistic gifts became recognized, he was criticized from both sides of the political spectrum and by blacks and whites because his articles and his columns did not scream; they reported and they commented without sensationalism.
The Washington Post, in reporting his death, quoted longtime Washington power-broker Vernon Jordan.
“He was viewed as a truth-teller,” Jordan, a lawyer, civil rights advocate and political adviser, said in an interview. “I am sure that I disagreed with him on a number of things. He had a way of telling you to go to hell and making you look forward to the trip.”
Okolonans should take justifiable pride in their town’s famous, remarkably gifted son.