Journalist and commentator William Raspberry was born on 12 October 1935 in Okolona, Mississippi. He graduated in 1952 from Okolona College High School, affiliated with an Episcopal Church junior college. Okolona was a deeply segregated town at the time and offered no public schooling to African Americans.
The son of Willie Mae Tucker Raspberry and James Lee Raspberry, both of whom were teachers, William Raspberry was determined to attend college out of state. He graduated from Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis) in 1958 with a major in history and a minor in philosophy. In 1956, while still an undergraduate, he started his journalism career as a reporter at the Indianapolis Recorder, an African American weekly. He rose to associate managing editor before being drafted.
From 1960 to 1962 he served as a public information officer in the US Army in Washington, D.C. He then joined the Washington Post as a teletype operator and eventually worked for the city desk, first as a reporter and then as an editor. In 1966 he took over the “Potomac Watch” column, specializing in urban affairs. He provided commentary on education, civil rights, crime, and drug abuse. The column originally appeared in the local news section but was moved to the op-ed page in 1979. It was syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group beginning in 1977 and at its peak appeared in more than 225 newspapers. Raspberry retired from the Washington Post in 2005. He always wrote clearly, stated the issues immediately, and took a position. He also contributed articles to Reader’s Digest, Nation’s Cities Weekly, America, Mother Jones, and Conservative Digest.
Raspberry taught at Howard University from 1971 to 1973 and served as a member of the board of advisers at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He worked as a commentator on several Washington, D.C., television stations in the mid-1970s and was a member of the Pulitzer Prize board from 1980 to 1986. He taught as the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy Studies at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.
Raspberry received a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, was named Journalist of the Year by the Capitol Press Club in 1965 for his coverage of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and in 2004 was awarded the Fourth Estate Award by the National Press Club. The National Association of Black Journalists gave Raspberry a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. About four dozen of his columns were collected in a book, Looking Backward at Us (1991).
In an interview with Contemporary Authors, Raspberry said, “I never take into account what a black columnist or black man would say about this issue, what he ought to think about this thing. I write about what makes sense to me about particular issues, and certainly the fact that I’m black has an influence on what I think makes sense about those issues.” Raspberry took pride in the fact that he defied easy categorization, writing that he sometimes seemed a conservative for declaring personal responsibility for the solution to problems and at other times seemed a liberal for his persistent discussion of problems faced by African Americans. He doubted Afrocentrism, questioned whether racism persisted as much as many African American leaders believed, and announced, “If I could offer a single prescription for the survival of America, and particularly of black America, it would be: restore the family.”
In 2003 Raspberry founded Baby Steps, an Okolona-based parent education program designed to help low-income parents of preschoolers prepare their children for school. He died at his Washington, D.C., home on 17 July 2012.