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‘I am just in a place of gratitude’: Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist awarded Pulitzer Prize

Michael Paul Williams, a veteran Richmond journalist says he is in a place of gratitude after...
Michael Paul Williams, a veteran Richmond journalist says he is in a place of gratitude after being awarded a Pulitzer Prize.(NBC 12)
Updated: Jun. 14, 2021 at 7:43 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A longtime Richmond journalist says he is in a “place of gratitude” after being awarded a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor.

The Pulitzer Prize board awarded Michael Paul Williams of the Richmond Times-Dispatch for “penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city’s monuments to white supremacy.”

Williams has been working for the RTD since 1982, first covering county and city governments. As the paper underwent changes, he approached his bosses in 1992 about writing opinion pieces.

“If we are about the business of representing our communities, we need to have an opinion writer of color, and I said ‘I know I can do this, I think I have earned a chance to do this,’” he said.

Since that time, he has written thousands of columns.

“A lot of it has always been about race in America. A column is a subjective vehicle,” Williams explained. “I thought that it filled a void, a need. Richmond, for all its tortured history, was not having a lot of honest discussions about race and the role of race and racism in that history. It was a natural topic to gravitate toward.”

Williams has been writing about the monuments since the 1990s.

“In the 1990s, I was pushing for a more complete story to be told on Monument Avenue and that involved advocating for Arthur Ashe’s statue to go up there,” Williams said. “In 2015, something snapped internally for me after Dylann Roof. I just could no longer abide it. They showed him surrounded by the Confederate flag and other white supremacist memorabilia. That is when it really hit home for me, this white supremacist symbolism has real, tangible power to harm us and it needs to come down, it needs to go.”

Williams says his commentary about removing monuments continued, and watching the protests of 2020, he knew something transformative was happening in Richmond and around the country.

“Change happens incrementally and then all at once - if that makes any sense at all,” he said. “You chip away, you chip away, you chip away, and you see no real impact and then, all of a sudden, things topple. You just can’t recognize the tipping point, and that is what happened. I think after George Floyd, the monuments were doomed.”

Winning a Pulitzer Prize is bigger than just Williams, he says he thinks about what the award means for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, as well as the City of Richmond as a whole.

“Those of us who were here, know Richmond has been changing or striving to change, there is still an awful lot of work to do, but that doesn’t necessarily translate on the outside. The protests and the protestors shine a different kind of light on Richmond, as a place where there are vigorous conversations about social justice and how to achieve it. Our coverage reflected that,” he explained. “The newspaper of massive resistance, the newspaper that sold slave ads, the newspaper that for so long was viewed as part of the problem in a racist city, was writing the first draft of history as our city tried to transform itself. My columns were only a part of that coverage.”

Friday, when he received the call, Williams was in “profane disbelief” and was soon in tears over the prestigious honor. He says “there is no turning back,” and the award represents the need to continue to do the work he and the RTD are doing. Williams was also happy to celebrate with the RTD staff after a year of being apart because of the pandemic.

“The way the staff came together, it was especially a moment because we have been apart. This newsroom, for the most part, has been very thinly populated over the last year. So many of us got to come together and celebrate, and toast champagne, and celebrate. It felt like old times, it felt like a newsroom again,” he said.

The last few days have been full of congratulations and admiration for the work Williams has done over the last 39 years. He says he still processing it all.

“I am just in a place of gratitude right now,” he said.

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