On July 1, 2005, my spouse and I moved from Boston, launching pad for the American Revolution, to Richmond, then often referred to unironically as the capital of the Confederacy, so I could assume a faculty position at the University of Richmond.
I almost immediately missed the Boston Globe with its in-depth, late-deadline sports section, as well as its deep pool of thoughtful liberal commentators on the opinion pages. The local paper in Richmond would be a lot different, I had been warned. Some even shared the (again unironic) jibe that the local daily was flat-out disgraceful.
But I believe in newspapers, and we became Richmond Times-Dispatch subscribers immediately. In 2005, this meant consuming on the editorial pages the sometimes disturbing work of outspoken conservatives like Ross Mackenzie, as well as unsigned editorials that seemed to be an endless repetitive loop of conservative talking points.
I soon concluded that the best part of my new local daily paper was the metro section. This did not take long: Our very first week in Richmond, Michael Paul Williams wrote a column on the release of the 2005 census population estimate, showing fewer than 193,000 people lived in Richmond, down from close to 250,000 in 1970.
As a scholar of urban politics who had just completed a dissertation on the impact of suburban sprawl and central city decline on American civic life, this fact interested me. But characteristically, Williams provided the historical context and interpretive lens needed to make sense of that fact.
The opening of that column from July 4, 2005, now sounds prophetic: “For a dying city, Richmond sure has plenty of signs of life.” Williams cited the recent construction of “lofts, town houses and condominiums” in downtown and Church Hill, then asked how these visible developments squared with Richmond’s continuing population loss.
The answer, he wrote, was that “for every single man or woman or young urban couple, the city is losing families with school-age children.” Williams went on that “Richmond will not experience significant residential growth until residents regain confidence that its schools – and I mean more than a couple – can provide their children with a quality education. Directing resources and attention toward the school system alone won’t solve what is largely a problem rooted in poverty.”
That analysis was remarkably helpful in helping me understand my new home, but it also holds up well as analysis of Richmond 16 years on. The city has grown since 2005, but the lack of confidence in schools and too-slow progress in overcoming poverty continue to hold Richmond back.
I read that column and thought to myself, “that makes sense,” and then “I’ve got to meet that guy!” That happened soon enough and Williams has been gracious enough to visit and share his perspective from a lifetime in Richmond with students in my classes numerous times.
He has many stories to share, but perhaps the most consequential one, repeated last week, is the courage he showed in the early 1990s in demanding that the Times-Dispatch have a Black columnist – a professional risk that paid off when he got the job. Williams was often a lonely voice against racial inequity throughout the 1990s and 2000s and a target of abuse, vitriol and threats from white readers. Yet he kept going, calling the shots as he saw them.
Williams’ typical writing posture has been prophetic: He’s pretty tough on leaders, regardless of jurisdiction, party or race, yet he never resorts to ad hominem criticism and never seeks to demean subjects in his writing. As someone who has been both a source for and occasionally a subject in Williams’ columns, I find his writing to be consistently fair, attentive to multiple perspectives and hence worthy of attention and respect – even when I have disagreed with his conclusions.
Most important, Williams has a clear moral perspective, rooted in life experience and personal decency, as well as deep knowledge of Richmond’s history. For 30 years, he’s used his platform to remind a mostly white readership about the steep costs of racism, inequality and poverty and to prod leaders at all levels to do more about these fundamental problems.
The whole nation got to meet Michael Paul Williams as he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for commentary on June 11 for his incisive coverage of last summer’s protests against racism and police violence followed by the removal of city-owned Confederate monuments.
Those columns demonstrated Williams’ characteristic mix of good reporting, relevant historical context, support from strong sources and a clear point of view rooted in a commitment to racial and social justice. In his July 12, 2020, piece, for instance, having cited court cases, elected officials, and academic experts, Williams cut through the noise to conclude “Richmond must stop waging war with the past and fight for its future. We’ve got to leave the lies behind.”
As Williams noted in an extraordinarily gracious acceptance column last week, Richmond and the nation are still very much in a fight for our collective future. And yet this Pulitzer is due recognition that Richmond is important, that the city has changed, and that brave people, Williams included, have acted to bring about change, often when there was little hope.
This is important because Richmond can be the kind of town that knocks the stuffing out of you and makes you think there is no hope and this place can’t change. But that itself is one of the lies Williams named that we need to leave behind.
Think about how many times Williams has written about the same topics year after year, from low graduation rates to crime to racist incidents to political and bureaucratic dysfunction. And think about the fact that Williams stuck with it, often as a lonely voice and in periods, such as much of the 1990s, when it was difficult to find visible reasons for hope.
His commitment to this city and to its people earned him the right to comment authoritatively on everything that went down last summer, in real time. Those comments and that perspective deservedly won a Pulitzer.
My hope is that he keeps going with his commentary and that his writing continues to prick the powerful while educating readers and perhaps even moving a few to action. After all, the ultimate meaning of 2020 for Richmond depends not simply on what happened in those fateful days last summer, but on what happens next. Mike Williams’ voice and pen are still sorely needed to keep us all focused on the real change Richmond still needs.
Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and a former director of the Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building.
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