Bill Raspberry—Great Journalist, Great Man, Still Making a Difference

By Jack Limpert

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Bill Raspberry was a columnist who looked for common ground.

Here is an update of a post from July 2012 about the life and good works of one of Washington’s very best journalists. When Washington Post columnists now tell readers what to think about race relations, my reaction almost always is, “If only Bill Raspberry was here to help all sides better understand.”
Bill Raspberry, 76, died July 17, 2012, 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. They wanted three local journalists, and politically correctly they picked out a woman (Clare Crawford of the Washington Daily News), a black male (Bill from the Washington Post), and white male (me from The Washingtonian magazine). 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 and talk about the week’s top local issues and how we were going to disagree with each other. Then we’d go out to the Channel 4 studios on Nebraska Avenue and sit down with moderator Angela Owens and tape the show for viewing on Sunday.

I think we 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 B.S. factor of what we were doing. After about 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 local journalism. There was no B.S. 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.

On July 3, 1975, when Jean Vincent and I were married in the backyard of our home, Bill and his wife Sondra were there.

Then in October 1976, The Washingtonian published what probably was its most controversial cover ever. It showed an ice cream cone–one scoop of vanilla topped by four scoops of chocolate. The cover headline was “Can Whites Survive in DC?” The cover deck: “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 Bill a note about a Washington Post story that had echoes of our 1976 cover story. He wrote a column about it.

In 2003 The Washingtonian published an admiring story about Bill’s efforts to improve the education of small children in his Mississippi hometown of Okolona. He was giving lots of his time and money to make a difference in the lives of lots of kids.

In 2005 Bill retired from the Washington Post and split his time between teaching at Duke University and his efforts to help the 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.
BabySteps, Inc., the non-profit organization that Bill founded in 2003 in his hometown of Okolona, Mississippi, is still going strong, helping parents of small children create stronger families.

Here are links to stories about BabySteps and Bill Raspberry in the Chickasaw Journal. One story, published February 2, 2015, was about the death of Bill’s mother, Willie Tucker Raspberry, at the age of 108. She was as remarkable and admirable as her son.






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