William Raspberry: A Remembrance and Salute
I’ve been remiss in not acknowledging the death last month of William Raspberry, a Washington Post-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist whose syndicated voice was essential for decades—decisively on matters of race, certainly, but much more than that too. It’s impossible for me to think of Bill, who died at 76, without the words “measure” and “gentleman” jumping to mind. An African American native of Jim Crow Mississippi, he once wrote that his small town had two of everything: one for whites and one for blacks.
I don’t remember when we first met, but I assume it was before he wrote a wonderful column in August 1990 about the first thing American Experiment ever published. It was a keynote speech by my old friend and boss Checker Finn, on the questions: “What ought society do when families crumble?” And “What ought government do when children are endangered.” Titled “Ten Tentative Truths,” it was delivered at our very first public event four months earlier. Bill opened his subsequent column by writing: “You won’t envy the assignment given Chester “Checker” Finn by a Minneapolis-based outfit called Center of the American Experiment.”
I’ve relished being called an “outfit” ever since and, out of respect for Bill, will use it more often.
The rest of his column was composed of excerpts from Checker’s trenchant and brave speech followed by equally trenchant, brave, and generous comments by Bill in response, such as: “[Y]ou might find yourself wishing that our social policy leadership, public and private, had the insight to see (and the guts to say) what Finn has said.”
An overly optimistic part of me came away at least partially assuming this might be the way things always would play out for the Center: Hold a conference, publish something from it, and whammo, some national journalist will write nice, even adulatory things about it. If only.
Or, more specifically, if only more journalists were as interested in the kinds of crucially important social and cultural issues Bill was interested in; issues which, because of what he had to say a couple of times every week in a couple of hundred newspapers, were sometimes shaped for the better.
While Bill quoted Checker, I’ve routinely cited what Bill had to say at a Minneapolis event put on by another organization about 20 years ago. He was asked something modest along the lines of: How can we get rid of poverty? I still vividly remember how he said the problem was big enough so that jumping in just about anyplace makes sense, but that if he were to choose just one point of entry, it would be with boys. He would start with the boys.
Schooled more by that quick comment than anything else, I constantly grasp more firmly every day in my own writing how, for example, troubled boys too often become the men who women don’t want to marry, and rightfully so.
After retiring from the Washington Post (and possibly before that, too), Bill taught at Duke. One of his students there, in a salute after he died, wrote that one class exercise had been to write two essays: One in favor of affirmative action, and the other against. As collegiate assignments go, this one sounds unusually and exquisitely fair—just like the good teacher and good man who assigned it.
P.S. Thanks to Peter Zeller, who tracked it down, here’s a link to Checker Finn’s 1990 paper that Bill Raspberry wrote about.
Mitch Pearlstein is Founder & President of Center of the American Experiment.