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Thursday, October 27, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas — William Raspberry was a provocateur who was so gentle and gentlemanly that you didn’t always grasp how much he was shaking up the conventional conversation until you actually thought about what he had just said. He was so open to the views of others that it was easy to miss that his convictions were as hard as steel.

The columnist, who died Tuesday at the age of 76, was a legend, yet he never acted like the truly famous person and breakthrough figure he was. Pomposity was, in his mind, one of the gravest sins.

Although he was a teacher to all who cared to listen, he always gave the impression that he was the one learning from everybody else. He cared profoundly about morality, and particularly parental responsibility, but his moral lessons often came surrounded by chuckles and laughter. They were no less serious for that.

Raspberry’s importance to journalism will be measured in different ways. The headlines will focus on the fact that he was one of the first widely syndicated African-American columnists. He really was a pioneer and a “role model,” a phrase he used seriously sometimes but usually poked fun at it as one of those expressions that loses its meaning from overuse.

It will be noted that he was a staunch advocate of civil rights who could also pick fights with what gets referred to as “the civil rights establishment.” He was an advocate of civility who practiced it. He often used his columns to float the interesting ideas of others, even when they were ideas he was not yet sure he fully agreed with. If the thoughts or plans or proposals struck him as interesting, he wanted his readers to know about them.

Because Raspberry did not meet the stereotypes of what a “black commentator” is supposed to say in every single column, he was sometimes characterized as a conservative. But since when does caring about family, parenting and education automatically make you a “conservative”? Where is it written that an African-American columnist is required to say that racism is the one and only explanation for the challenges facing African-Americans?