National Press Club

Fourth Estate Award recipient and Club member William Raspberry dies at 76

July 18, 2012 | By Arthur Wiese | artwiese@gmail.com

William J. Raspberry, the retired Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post and 2004 recipient of the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award, died Tuesday, July 17, at his Washington home. He was 76 and had battled prostate cancer for the past year.

Raspberry was a 43-year employee of The Post, including more than 39 years spent as a columnist. At the time of his retirement at the end of 2005, his work was syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group to more than 200 newspapers, making him one of the nation's most prominent and respected African American journalists.

In 1994 he became only the second black columnist to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, an award for which he first had been nominated in 1982.

A 16-year member of the National Press Club, Raspberry was in 2004 the 32nd recipient of the Club's highest honor, the Fourth Estate Award, which is given annually in recognition of an entire career of journalistic distinction. He also received a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1994 and the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award, named for the martyred abolitionist editor, from Colby College in 1999. In addition, he was a member of both the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Journalism Hall of Fame.

For more than 10 years he also served as the Knight Professor of the Practice of Communications and Journalism at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University.

Born Oct. 12, 1935, in Okolona, Miss., the son of two school teachers, Raspberry grew up in the rigidly segregated Deep South. He briefly worked for the Indianapolis Recorder in 1956 while attending Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis), from which he received a Bachelor's of Science degree in history in 1958. He was a public information officer for the Army from 1960-62 and then joined The Post as a teletype operator. Within a few months, his writing ability was spotted, and he was promoted to reporter, becoming one of the first black journalists to work for the paper's metro section.

His 1965 coverage of the urban riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles was widely praised, in part leading to his being named a local columnist the next year. In 1970, his column was moved from The Post's metro section to its op-ed page, although Raspberry's columns continued to focus less on national politics or sweeping government issues than on subjects from everyday life that affected ordinary people, such as education, school violence, civil rights, the problems of American cities and the plight of the poor.

Although he regarded himself as a liberal, his columns often had an unconventional, less predictable tone that sometimes drew criticism from both the left and right. He strongly supported school integration, for example, but opposed busing to create racial balance. Some columns were voiced through "the cabbie," a fictitious D.C. cab driver Raspberry would quote to emphasize what "the man in the street" might be thinking.

In 1974, Time magazine wrote that Raspberry had “emerged as the most respected black voice on any white U.S. newspaper.” Time said the columnist -- who on occasion sharply disagreed with civil rights leaders -- was "neither a Pollyanna nor a raging militant. He considers the merits rather than the ideology of any issue. Not surprisingly his judgments regularly nettle the Pollyannas and militants."

Raspberry was famous among his friends for his rich, impish sense of humor, one that often involved his breaking up in giggles at his own jokes. For years he was a regular singer in the annual musical spoofs of politicians hosted by the Gridiron Club and Foundation, which he first joined in 1978. He served as the Gridiron's president in 2000.

Clarence Page, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "Bill Raspberry inspired a rising generation of African American columnists and commentators who followed in his path, including me."

In his final column at The Post on Dec. 26, 2005, Raspberry explained his plans for retirement. "What's worth doing?" he wrote. "One answer is helping to save an endangered generation of children. I still believe in the magic of education, a belief instilled in me by my teacher-parents. It scares me that the parents of so many young children today don't believe in the magic. It's almost as if they are afraid to believe in it, afraid to dream of success because they've become convinced that only failure is real."

He, therefore, was stepping down, he wrote, to devote his remaining years to raising money to "sustain" Baby Steps, a program he began in his original hometown of Okolona, Miss., that teaches mostly low-income parents of preschoolers how to prepare their children for academic success. Less than a month ago, The Post hosted Washington journalists and friends of Raspberry at a roast honoring him, with the proceeds going to Baby Steps.

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Sondra Patricia Dodson Raspberry; his mother, who is 106 years old; two daughters, Patricia Raspberry and Angela Raspberry Jackson; a son, Mark Raspberry; a foster son, Reginald Harrison, and a sister and a brother.