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GUEST Column

Remembering William Raspberry...a thoughtful voice in troubled times

ALEXANDRIA, VA -- The death of William Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, has taken from us a man whose fiercely independent views helped us through the troubled 1960s. He made it clear that black Americans held many different political and social views, not only those expressed by often self-appointed spokesmen.

Bill Raspberry was one of the first black journalists to gain a wide following in the mainstream press. He wrote his opinion column for the Post for nearly 40 years before retiring in 2005. Nearly 200 newspapers carried his column, which reflected his own experience of having grown up in the segregated South.

Although he considered himself to be liberal, Raspberry rejected many of the liberal pieties of the day. He favored integration, but he opposed busing children to achieve an artificial racial balance. He did not view himself as a political partisan and stopped appearing on argumentative television talk shows because, as he said in 2006, "...they force you to pretend to be mad even when you're not."

He liked to discuss the problems facing ordinary people. He sometimes voiced these problems through the device of an imaginary Washington, D.C. cab driver, simply called "the cabbie," who was a recurring figure in his columns.

In Raspberry's view, the problems facing black Americans were not all caused by white racism and, as a result, could not be confronted simply by opposing such racism. He believed in self-reliance and in the importance of education, and he often cited the example of his parents, both of whom were teachers (his mother, at age 106, survives him). He challenged prominent civil rights figures to put their words into action, to help build a better world for the poor and disenfranchised.

"Education is the one best hope black Americans have for a decent future," he wrote in a 1989 column. "The civil rights leadership, for all its emphasis on desegregating schools, has done very little to improve them."

He was saddened by the decline of the black family and the fact that the majority of black children grow up in one-parent homes. "It's not racism that's keeping our children from learning; it's something much nearer home than that," he told Washingtonian magazine in 2003. "We need to remember that the most influential resource a child can have is a parent who cares. And we need to admit that sometimes parents are the missing ingredient."

In an interview with the News and Record of Greensboro, N.C., in 1996, Raspberry said, "I grew up in apartheid. And yet it never induced in my parents to teach us anything else than that we were responsible for our own behavior, our own minds."

Raspberry was dispatched by the Post in 1965 to cover riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles. A year later he was a columnist. After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he wrote a series of dispatches from the streets of Washington, D.C. He taught journalism for more than 10 years at Duke University. In retirement, he devoted much of his time to an educational foundation, Baby Steps, that he organized in his home town in Mississippi. He funded the project for low-income parents and children from his own pocket.

In 1974, Time Magazine wrote that Raspberry had "...emerged as the most respected black voice on any white U.S. newspaper.... 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."

In a 1999 column, Raspberry criticized civil rights leaders, accusing them of dwelling on racism rather than pressing for practical solutions to the problems faced by blacks, such as the breakdown of the family and black-on-black crime. In one of his last columns, he returned to the theme of individual responsibility, declaring that "...father absence is the bane of the black community. What is happening to the black family in America is the sociological equivalent of global warming: easier to document than to reverse, inconsistent in its near-term effect - and disastrous in the long run."

Shortly before his death, more than 200 friends, colleagues and admirers gathered at the Post to honor Raspberry. Fox News commentator Juan Williams served as master of ceremonies. He said: "Bill Raspberry is the best. He's been a mentor to so many people. His writing is heartfelt and incisive...there were no polemics, it was personal and no one could peg him. He always wrote with a smile. He's a pioneer who paved the way for writers and commentators."

Ron Sarro, a former Washington Star reporter, said Raspberry walked the path less traveled. "He was a genius because he identified the key civil rights issue of the 2000s in the 1960s - education as a way to move up. People were blaming whitey, the system, their neighbors and he said 'we should take responsibility'."

Summing up Raspberry's contribution, Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes: "Because Raspberry did not meet the stereotype of what a 'black commentator' is supposed to say in every single column, he was sometimes characterized as a conservative. But since when does caring about family, parenting and education automatically make you a 'conservative'? Where is it written that an African-American columnist is required to say that racism is the one and only explanation for the challenges facing African-Americans? Raspberry simply had a passion for justice, especially where poor children were concerned. It was a passion that refused to be contained by ideological boxes or by the expectations of others about what he was supposed to be writing."

Bill Raspberry showed that black Americans, like all of us, have a variety of points of view, based on their beliefs about how a decent society can be created and sustained. He refused to be pigeonholed by race and, in doing so, he set a standard for all of us to follow.

- Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is "The Revolution Lobby" (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (fgfBooks.com).

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