Michael Paul Williams is a man of perspective, but he gained a new one in an old institution on Thursday, when both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly honored him for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Williams, accompanied by his wife, author Robin Farmer, stood first in the center aisle of the House of Delegates for a resolution read by House Clerk Suzette Denslow, a fellow graduate of Hermitage High School in Henrico County.
The proclamation lauded his prize-winning work for columns he wrote last summer about the protests that roiled Richmond over police treatment of racial minorities and the palpable shadow cast by monuments to Confederate leaders erected long after the Civil War.
After the applause died down from two standing ovations, Williams quipped, “I never expected to be in the House chamber from this particular perspective, but it ain’t bad!”
Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, guided his visit to the Capitol and presented him to the House as “a very important voice for Richmond.”
Carr was joined in the presentation by two other Richmond legislators — Del. Delores McQuinn and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, both Democrats who have represented the city in various roles during Williams’ tenure as a Times-Dispatch columnist.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, personally greeted Williams and Farmer when they arrived at the House chamber. “You have truly been a catalyst for change,” Filler-Corn told him from the speaker’s rostrum.
In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax paid tribute to Williams.
“I want to thank you so much for your tremendous leadership, for your great insight, for all that you have meant to not only Richmond ... the commonwealth of Virginia, to our nation,” Fairfax said.
“You’ve raised the level of our discourse. You have focused on lifting up hope for all people, and fighting for the truth, and for fighting for the dignity of all people. And so we appreciate your tremendous leadership, your courage that you’ve shown in the face of many obstacles, many odds.”
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 announcement was made June 11.
Williams, 62, joined The Times-Dispatch as a news reporter in 1982. In 1992, as The Times-Dispatch prepared to merge with its afternoon rival, The Richmond News Leader, he pitched an idea to his editors: make him a columnist to bring a fresh perspective to 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 for a Times-Dispatch story after winning the Pulitzer. “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 and began writing columns. He has written more than 2,700, noted the House resolution, “while contributing to the evolution of the paper over the past half-century.”
Williams accompanied the legislators to the Senate, where Clerk Susan Schaar read a resolution adopted in his honor.
McClellan extolled his work in a personal way, saying she and Williams are two people of color with a long history of struggle against racial injustice.
“Over the years, Michael and I have had several conversations — in the wake of the Unite the Right rally, in the wake of the scandals of 2019, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder,” she said. “And he was always able to articulate the raging emotions many of us felt much better than we ever could — very eloquently. And sometimes, we’d have to give each other hope.”
“And so I was very pleased to see that after his win, when he spoke to his colleagues, he said, ‘In the midst of all this hardship of this past year, I have so much hope,’” McClellan said. “And he has been able to articulate that hope much better than any of us could.”