After the Virginia Press Association’s annual awards were announced in April, I was stunned when I did not find Michael Paul Williams’ name among the winners.
So, I sent him an email — we’ve mostly been working remotely for more than a year — and told him I was flabbergasted by his omission because I had been awed by his exceptional work during the extraordinary year that was 2020.
“Just wanted to let you know I was surprised — no, stunned — that you didn’t win,” I wrote. “Your columns last year reflected wisdom, fire and courage. I remember reading [them] and thinking, ‘This is how Pulitzers are won.’”
Turns out, I was right for once.
On Friday, Williams, 62, a longtime columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary for 2021.
The Pulitzer board honored Williams for his “penetrating and historically insightful columns that led Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city’s monuments to white supremacy.”
The Pulitzer is the highest honor for U.S. journalists. The 105th class of Pulitzer Prize winners was announced via livestreaming video on Friday afternoon.
The Times-Dispatch’s last Pulitzer winner was Virginius Dabney, who won in 1948 for editorial writing. Mark Holmberg, an RTD columnist, was a Pulitzer finalist in commentary in 2003.
At The Richmond News Leader, an afternoon newspaper that merged with The Times-Dispatch in 1992, editorial cartoonist Jeff MacNelly won Pulitzer Prizes in 1972 and 1978.
The award caught Williams completely by surprise. He did not know the Pulitzers were being announced Friday, having been postponed from April when they are usually made public.
He was at home, putting the finishing touches on his weekend column when his mobile phone rang. He saw it was Managing Editor Mike Szvetitz calling.
“I thought, ‘Well, this can’t be good,’” Williams said with a laugh, a short while later. “With the current state of the newspaper industry, we’re kind of conditioned to expect the worst, so I picked it up expecting to hear bad news.”
Instead, he heard he had won a Pulitzer.
“You want to be eloquent in a moment like that, but I think my exact words were, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’
“You just never know how a day’s going to go.”
In a statement, Publisher and President Paul Farrell, Executive Editor/VP News Paige Mudd and Szvetitz praised Williams’ work, career and commitment:
“We could not be more proud of our colleague Michael Paul Williams. This honor recognizes Michael Paul’s dedication to shining a bright light on Richmond’s sordid history while holding the community accountable for a better tomorrow. In 2020, the murder of George Floyd ignited anger and frustration across our country and our city. Michael Paul’s commentary served as the centerpiece for our entire newsroom’s coverage of Richmond’s legacy of inequity, with a voice that spoke to the trauma of yesterday and the hope for tomorrow.”
In her nominating letter to the Pulitzer committee, Williams’ editor, K. Burnell Evans, wrote, “Michael Paul Williams has been spurring Richmond toward an awakening since 1992, when he became the first Black columnist at an institution that endorsed Massive Resistance.”
In the “combustible summer” of 2020, Evans wrote, “marked by more than 100 days of protests that saw an already frayed trust between police and communities shredded, Williams charged us all to be better than we are.” While many people cheered as statues began coming down 155 years after the Civil War, “Williams urged us to look deeper and reach farther.”
“After Stonewall Jackson fell, Williams turned his attention to nearby schools named for Confederate leaders, and the VA hospital, which still honors a eugenicist who doctored Rebel soldiers,” read the nominating letter. “He took on a judge who ruled Lee could not come down from his pedestal in the heart of the city and called for the monuments to be kept where they could be interpreted.”
Evans wrote, “Williams’ whole life prepared him to meet this moment with a clarity and compassion his readers need.”
A Richmond native, Williams is a graduate of Hermitage High School — where we were teammates on the track team; he was a sprinter and one of the region’s best triple-jumpers, while I was a distance runner, so you could say he ran faster, but I ran farther — and Virginia Union University.
He holds a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University for the 1999-2000 academic year.
Williams came to The Times-Dispatch in 1982. He reported first from the paper’s Williamsburg bureau and later covered Chesterfield County government and Richmond’s City Hall. As The Times-Dispatch prepared to merge with The News Leader in 1992, Williams approached his editors and asked for an opportunity to write columns.
At the time, he had been “feeling things intensely ... largely about race,” and though he communicated his thoughts with others, he was not seeing that perspective in the newspaper. In making his pitch, he noted the lack of a Black voice among the newspaper’s columnists to address issues of race in a predominantly Black city.
“If we’re about representing our community, this is something that is sorely missing,” he recalled saying. “I told them, ‘I know I can do this job, you know I can do this job, and I’ve earned at least a shot at doing this job. But if you don’t let me do this job, you need to find someone who will because we need a commentator of color at this newspaper.’”
He got the job.
“So, what do you do now?” he said. “You start writing columns.”
Over the years, he has not shied away from writing forcefully and fearlessly about sensitive topics, initiating public conversations we need to have.
“Usually, there’s a lot of feeling involved,” he said. “It’s often not a pleasant sensation because being Black in America today is often not a pleasant sensation.”
Writing authentically from the heart on such serious, personally felt subjects day after day can be draining and anything but fun.
“It’s not always pleasant for people to read, but it’s coming from a real place,” he said, noting he has frequently been the target of threats and slurs over the years.
“It goes with the territory,” Williams told me Friday, though he takes it as a promising sign that “there haven’t been any physical threats in quite some time. I guess that’s progress.”
“No journalist goes into it to be loved,” he said. “If they’re in it to be loved, they’re in it for the wrong reason. I think most of us in our own way are seeking some sort of truth, some sort of elemental truth.”
In a letter to the Pulitzer committee supporting Williams’ nomination, Christy S. Coleman, executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and former president and chief operating officer of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, said that upon her arrival in Richmond, she found Williams “to not only be curious and a staunch defender of truth, but also deeply committed to the community he covers.”
“If the past year has taught us anything, it is the “Fourth Estate” — a free and independent press — remains a powerful and important component of American life. The best journalists understand the fragile but essential relationships they build with readers and newsmakers. They understand compelling stories have the power to drive informed public discourse. They understand empathy and compassion can never override the veracity of their research. The best journalists keep all of these elements front and center and bless us with work that captures who we are and strive to be.
“Without a doubt, Michael Paul Williams is one such journalist. He manages to bring all this and more to his extraordinary body of work.”
Over the years, Williams has been honored many times over for his work: Virginia Press Association awards for column writing in 1992, 1994, 2007 and 2014; in 2010, he was the recipient of the George Mason Award for outstanding contributions to Virginia journalism, given by the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists; he received the 2012 Humanitarian Award from the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and the 2014 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Around the office, he’s admired, respected and liked. His laugh fills the room.
The RTD’s downtown newsroom, largely quiet for the past 15 months as most of us have worked remotely from home because of the pandemic, came alive Friday afternoon as Williams’ colleagues came into the office to cheer him.
There was celebratory champagne, sipped from plastic cups, and trays of cupcakes, cookies and veggies. Williams arrived 40 minutes late, as he had been scrambling all afternoon, his cellphone blowing up with congratulatory calls and texts.
There was also a series of short speeches, followed by words from Williams himself, speaking for many when he said, “In the midst of all this hardship of this past year, I have so much hope.”