To be born black in Okolona, Miss., in 1935 was to have two strikes against you and a fastball coming at your head. Unless, that is, you are William Raspberry, the syndicated columnist who has announced his retirement from column writing after 40 years, but not retirement from life after 70 years.
Raspberry tells me his greatest inspirations were his parents. "They loved each other and all of us," he said of himself and his siblings "and they instilled in us a love of learning and a sense that we could do it."
They didn't give him the "you can be president" speech, but they instilled in him a desire to read and a belief that he and his brothers and sisters could succeed. They all succeeded for which they can thank their mother on her 100th birthday in February.
Raspberry might have become bitter over racial injustice, as did many of his generation. Instead, he poured himself into study, earning a B.S. degree from Indiana Central College in 1958. He spent 1960 through 1962 as a public information officer for the U.S. Army in Washington. Following his military service, he joined the staff of The Washington Post, beginning as a teletypist and working his way up to writing obituaries, the city desk, the "Potomac Watch" local column and then, in 1966, moving to national and international subjects for the Post and for syndication.
As a white Washingtonian, who grew up in the white suburbs and who didn't know any black people other than my parents' maid until I began playing basketball, Bill Raspberry was my early link to black thought. He did not rant about injustices so much as he tried to persuade people that injustice against anyone was objectively and morally wrong. In this, he was more like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., than Malcolm X, or the young Eldridge Cleaver.
Raspberry developed a journalistic persona he called the taxi driver in and through whom he argued important issues with himself. It was a useful vehicle (the metaphor, not the taxi) for getting inside the minds of readers and forcing them to consider subjects that were important to him.
In a 1995 Alf Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, Raspberry lamented the loss of community in America that, he said, had led to violence in our streets, apathy in our schools and hopelessness among our young people. He said a lot of these things resulted from "our crisis of community."
He said he is all for the "normal give and take among the various sectors and ideologies of the society." But he feared "our growing inability to act - even to think - in the interest of the nation. It's almost as if there is no national interest. . The whole society seems to be disintegrating into special interests."
Raspberry plans to invest more time in a program called "Baby Steps," about which he says in his final column, "It is my attempt to renew faith in the magic of education and to spark a faith in the efficacy of community. I believe that pulling a community together around the future of its children can do wonders to transform both."
Here's the posting on the Okolona, Mississippi Chamber of Commerce Web site: "Baby Steps involves more than passing along parenting tips; it involves the notion that an entire town can rally around its children. Raspberry states, 'I truly believe we have the possibility of transforming Okolona by uplifting its children, perhaps even creating an example that other communities can learn from.'"
According to the Okolona Chamber of Commerce, "Baby Steps' first phase began in Okolona in August with more than 20 parents involved. It is patterned after MegaSkills, a parental leadership program based in Washington, D.C. Working closely with school superintendents and teachers, parents receive information on early childhood education, child motivation, and role-playing." The University of Mississippi has agreed to partner in the early reading effort.
Bill Raspberry is coming full circle. He'll remain in Washington, teaching Duke University students, but he will also spend more time in his hometown encouraging young people. One or more might become the next William Raspberry.
I'll bet such a thing would trump his Pulitzer Prize in personal satisfaction.