SID SALTER: Journalist William Raspberry never forgot his Mississippi roots

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – When I learned of the death of longtime Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I’d had with him in 2005 in his hometown of Okolona. Raspberry, who logged 40 years writing commentary for the Post and saw his work syndicated nationally in more than 200 newspapers, died at age 76 at his Washington home of prostate cancer on July 17.
Raspberry won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and was then only the second African-American writer afforded that honor.
I had met Raspberry several times over the years at conferences, but never spent much time with him until 2000 when he became the first black journalist inducted into the Mississippi Press Association’s Hall of Fame. In 2005, after learning of the early childhood education/intervention effort he was personally funding in Okolona, I asked him to meet me there and to tell me about his vision for changing the game for disadvantaged children.
Prior to the interview, I asked him if it bothered him that in 2000 he had been the first black MPA Hall of Fame inductee, and that coming some six years after winning the Pulitzer. He reflected on the question, then said: “No, not really. One thing one learns growing up in the segregated South is patience. I was pleasantly surprised when the honor came and I was glad that my mother lived to see it, but my career had taught me that change comes ever so slowly.”
One area in which Raspberry lost his patience was early childhood education. Raspberry’s solution was a program he funded and founded called Baby Steps.
“The (Baby Steps’) basic idea is that all parents, no matter how unsuccessful they might have been in school, want their children to succeed academically – even if many of them don’t know how to make that happen,” Raspberry wrote in his nationally syndicated Nov. 17, 2003, column in the Washington Post.
On that day in 2005 in Okolona, I joined Raspberry at the Hazel Ivy Child Care Center. Raspberry arrived and was greeted not as one of the nation’s premier journalists, but as a neighbor and friend called “Bill.” In many ways, Raspberry never forgot his Mississippi upbringing and the inspiration of his school teacher parents. One of Raspberry’s 1993 columns that earned the 1994 Pulitzer Prize contained this observation on the topic of violence and family upheaval in the black community: “It does not absolve America of its racism. It does not contend that racism is no longer of much importance. It simply gives voice to what all of us know but have so much trouble talking about: that the major forces that threaten black America – family deterioration, teen pregnancy, drugs, violence – are things that have to be dealt with from the inside.”
In 2005, I asked Raspberry to define his legacy in journalism: “I’m at an age where legacy becomes important. I’d like to leave something behind other than yellowing newspaper columns, something that people can carry forward. At the end of the day, I’d like to be remembered as someone who always tried to make clear the things that were pulling us apart and tried to ameliorate it, to point out that we’re not as far apart as folks would have us to believe.”
Bill Raspberry’s place in American journalism is assured, but Mississippians would be wise to claim our part of this good man’s distinguished personal and professional legacy.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.