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It grieves me to tell you something you might already know. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, much loved columnist William Raspberry passed away Tuesday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 76 years old.
If you followed his work — columns that cut to the quick of difficult issues but were never mean — then you don't need me to tell you why he's already missed. But if you didn't know his work — or him, for that matter — please give me the privilege of telling you what you missed.
Bill Raspberry, as his obituary in The Washington Post rightly said, became one of the very first black journalists to have real impact and a genuine following in the so-called mainstream media. By the time he completed a nearly 40-year career at the Post, he was syndicated in more than 200 papers around the country.
He wrote about everything from domestic politics to international issues, poverty, race and crime. Yet, he never lost his sense of humor or hope for the people he saw every day: the cab driver, the schoolteacher, the single mom, the awkward kid. All of them mattered, to Mr. Raspberry, as much as or more than the biggest big shot in the nation's capital.
More than anything, though, Bill Raspberry was his own man. And that deserves to be celebrated. Not because, as so many on the right like to believe, everybody in the media is liberal. Nor, as so many on the left like to believe, because the media is bought and paid for now. But because it has always been easier to pick a team and root for it than to be your own man.
In an interview I was grateful to have had with Raspberry in 2007, he was talking to me about his views about why desegregation was not enough to fix a broken educational system:
"For the civil rights leadership, for the lawyers, for all those people who were well educated and substantially middle-class already, integration was sort of a final validation of their humanness, which is fine, and I believe it's true. But they also made the mistake of supposing that integration would fix what was broken about poor black children in the inner cities. And it was clear to me that it couldn't and wouldn't.
"And the parents of these children who were being crippled, when they went to, principally to the NAACP and sought relief from some of the horrendous practices that they were subjected to — rotten, falling-down buildings, poor curricular, all these other things — whatever complaint they brought got translated into a desegregation suit, and the remedy was busing.
"Not that desegregation is wrong. But I never believed that you could cure people who are damaged by the American culture simply by submersing them in a situation in which they were the overwhelming minority. It didn't make sense."
Making sense. Come to think of it, that was something Bill Raspberry tried to do every day and did very well. You didn't have to agree with him, but you did have to listen. Raspberry, it bears mentioning, was not just a role model and example for black folks or journalists. So, I think it's fitting to give him the last word:
"If you ask me, 'Am I an African-American first or a male first, or a Mississippian first?' I'm me first. I'm all of these things. I'm black, I'm short, I'm old, I'm Southern. I'm reasonably sensitive. I'm a husband and a father and a pretty loyal friend. And I'm all these things mixed up, and I have given up trying to separate them out into 'Who am I the most?' I'm mostly me. And I feel pretty good about that."