Columnist William Raspberry Dies at 76

Journal-isms: Cancer claims a black pioneer among mainstream pundits.

William Raspberry (The Washington Post)
William Raspberry (The Washington Post)

Cancer Claims Pioneer Among Mainstream Pundits

William Raspberry, retired Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Washington Post and its first African American in that role, died early Tuesday at his home in Washington, his wife, Sondra, told Journal-isms. He was 76 and died of metastatic prostate cancer. “We had a full 45 years together,” she said. “He was surrounded by family.”

Raspberry was honored only last month with a roast and benefit for the foundation he created, BabySteps, which nurtures parents and preschoolers in Raspberry’s hometown of Okolona, Miss. More than 200 journalists and other community people went to the Washington Post building for the tribute, which raised more than $40,000.

On June 5, Donald E. Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Co., gathered about a dozen of Raspberry’s colleagues over the years for a lunch at the Post in Raspberry’s honor. They told stories ranging from Raspberry’s beginnings at the Post as a teletype operator to covering the 1965 Watts riots to Raspberry’s work checking area police departments by telephone for news. In a common experience for that time, he encountered a racist officer who no doubt did not realize he was speaking with a black journalist.

Philosophically, Raspberry, the son of a school principal, said he  refused to accept the choice offered a century ago by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois over whether political action or self-help was the best course for black progress.

He wondered at the luncheon whether the same-sex marriage debate would be regarded as silly 100 years from now, the way we view arguments for slavery today.

When Raspberry became syndicated in the late 1970s, he was promoted as the leading black columnist for a white newspaper, Carl T. Rowan notwithstanding.

Writing about the recent tribute, Barrington M. Salmon of the Washington Informer quoted Raspberry’s close friend, journalist Paul Delaney: “The explosive, heady days of the Civil Rights era illustrated another Raspberry trait,” Salmon wrote.

” ‘He was not like the rest of us. He kept his cool. Some of his friends were angry at the plight and situation of black people and their [plights] in particular,’ said Delaney. ‘Sometimes we got mad at him because he didn’t get mad enough.’

“Raspberry, he said, was the person to stand back rationally, challenge the prevailing sentiment and offer an unemotional, nuanced opinion.”

A brief Post bio reads: