Bill Raspberry, 76, died July 17 in Washington. Very few journalists, and almost no columnists, had as many readers, admirers, and friends. Here are snapshots of Bill from 40 years of knowing him.
We met in the early 1970s when WRC, the NBC-owned television station in Washington, wanted to start a Sunday morning talk show. The producers wanted three local journalists, and politically correctly they had picked a woman (Clare Crawford, from the Washington Daily News), a black male (Bill, from the Washington Post), and a white male (me, from The Washingtonian). They wanted us to talk about local issues, and as a hint of what was going to happen to journalism, they wanted more heat than light. So we did it. Every Friday morning we’d get on the phone to talk about the week’s hot local topics and how we were going to disagree with one another. Then we’d go out to the Channel 4 studios on Nebraska Avenue and sit down with moderator Angela Owens to tape the show for viewing on Sunday.
I think we all enjoyed it at first—it was one of the first TV talk shows featuring print journalists, we got a little money and notice, and we hoped we were helping sell copies of our publications. I was never sure how Clare felt about the charade, but it didn’t take long for Bill and me to talk about the high BS factor of what we were doing. After what I remember was two years of this, WRC mercifully moved on to different Sunday morning programming.
In 1974 The Washingtonian honored Bill as one of our Washingtonians of the Year for his journalism at the Post. There was no BS in this—Bill was a great columnist, and nobody could better reach both blacks and whites. Lots of reasoned discussion, lots of bridge-building, lots of light.
In 1975 when I married Jean Vincent in the backyard of our Bethesda home, Bill and his wife, Sondra, were there.
Then in October 1976, The Washingtonian published what was probably its most controversial cover ever. It showed an ice cream cone holding one scoop of vanilla topped by four scoops of chocolate. The cover headline was “Can Whites Survive in DC?” The subhead: “A ‘Chocolate City” mentality is taking hold in the District. A new kind of racism is emerging. And there is a greater frustration and bitterness between blacks and whites.”
Bill wrote about the cover and came pretty close to calling the magazine racist. We exchanged some private written words but didn’t see much of each other for some time.
In 2001 I wrote him a note about a
Washington Post story that had echoes of our 1976
cover story. Bill wrote a column about it.
In 2003 The Washingtonian published a story about Bill’s efforts to improve the education of small children in his Mississippi hometown of Okolona.
In 2005 he retired from the Post and split his time between teaching at Duke University and his efforts to help kids in his Mississippi hometown. Finally, in 2010 we both spoke at a dinner of the Society of Professional Journalist in Washington. As always, he was the most admired journalist in the room—a great journalist and a great man.