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Michael Paul Williams: Pulitzer Winner on What’s Next for Richmond

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Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Paul Williams toasting his co-workers on Friday. (Photo: Daniel Sangjib Min/RTD)

Last Friday, Michael Paul Williams – the long-time columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch -- was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in journalism. 

The Pulitzer Board gave Wiliams the award for his “penetrating and 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.”

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity: 

Ian Stewart: How did you celebrate this weekend? 

Michael Paul Williams: Friday night after we got word, I was summoned to the newsroom where we had copious amounts of champagne. And toast and speeches. And then the editor Mike Szvetitz offered to take us to Penny Lane, on him, and no self-respecting reporter would pass that up. 

… It's been less raucous than you can imagine. And yesterday, and today, back to work. And today, it's been nonstop. 

IS: Yeah, well, again, I appreciate that.  

MPW: I did do three interviews yesterday, by the way.  

IS: Yeah. Well, you're the man of the hour, but rightfully so and so well deserved. 

MPW: I don't think I could have done this without the benefit of a, being about 40 years into the business; and b, having spent most of my life in Richmond, other than with a few exceptions involved in education and fellowship. 

These were topics and histories that I was familiar with because they weren't new, it just seemed like the world was kind of catching up to them. I've been ranting and railing against Confederate monuments for the better part of the last five years or the prior five years before it seemed like the world suddenly became utterly committed to taking them down or at least, you know, Richmond did. 

I remember the first ‘they must go, they must come down’ columns I wrote were in 2015 after Dylann Roof killed nine Black church goers in Charleston. And at that time, I remember reading the old clips from the Times-Dispatch of when the monuments went up. And, you know the words of John Mitchell [editor of the Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper, from 1884 to 1929), who was very much opposed and just kind of getting all that history. And it was more of a celebration of the end of reconstruction, and a reassertion of white dominance, then it was about anything regarding the Civil War, other than an attempt to reframe the narrative. 

IS: So many statues were going up all across the country at that time. 

MPW: It was all by design. And you will note also by design, around the same period, the statues were going up, The Daughters of the Confederacy, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, have their fingerprints all over both the monument making, and the textbooks. For generations of people across the country, and in Virginia, [they] made enslavement as benign as possible. And these are textbooks that were in Virginia classrooms into the 1970s. 

IS: We have one major monument left in this area to go down. Are people finally realizing the breadth and depth of these of these things, throughout the city and throughout other parts of the state? 

MPW: I know for a fact that people are capable of changing their minds on this subject, because I am one of them. I grew up in this town. And I didn't spend any time in my formative years thinking much about the monuments. And as an adult, a younger adult, thinking about bringing them down, because frankly, the idea seemed implausible. 

My focus in the 1990s, as an opinion writer, was on adding diversity and a greater breath of historical reality to Monument Avenue. To make it a place where the entire story was just was told and not just a Confederate story. 

And that manifested itself in the push by myself, by Governor Wilder, by Chuck Richardson, the former city councilman, and Virginia Heroes organization, to place Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue. And I certainly wasn't thinking, and I doubt ifanyone is thinking, that Arthur Ashe would be the last African American on Monument Avenue. I mean, I envisioned it as a place where you could have monuments to the civil rights movement with folks like Oliver Hill and Samuel Tucker and Spotswood Robinson. Have John Mitchell, John Mitchell Jr. who vowed to take those Confederate monuments down or said that Black hands would take them down, they put them up and should the day come take them down. I thought it would be a great irony if he ended up on Monument Avenue--he would probably find it distasteful given the company.  Maggie L. Walker's fore her what I think is a wonderful monument went up on Broad Street. But yeah, it just seemed like even to the point where more recently we were talking about adding context to Monument Avenue and installing a monument to the to U.S. Colored Troops. That was the impetus. I mean, that was the thinking at that time. And then it wasn't. 

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(Photo: Daniel Sangjib Min/RTD)

IS: So where do you think we are now, after this past year of, you know, protests and the monuments coming down, and we're still waiting for the big one to come down? And maybe, you know, the public's relation to the Richmond Police Department. Like, what do you think we are as a region as a city? 

MPW: We're in a space of interrogation like we haven't had in some time. You know, there were very tangible and almost unbelievable things that I think came out of this movement. We no longer have the death penalty in Virginia, which is something that just a few short years ago would have been utterly unimaginable. I mean, it's not just been about monuments. We've legalized marijuana. 

The relationship with the police department is problematic. Maybe in a way we wouldn't have foreseen before Marcus-David Peters was killed by a police officer. I'm thinking back to when Rodney Monroe was police chief. And the homicides, and violent crime had dropped tremendously from the dark days in the 1990s. And Richmond seemed to be a model of community policing. I feel safe in saying that perspective and that relationship has done some backsliding. And there has to be some serious repair done. And it's not going to be easy. 

I was listening a bit to the taskforce meeting, the other night, to establish the the Civilian Review Board.  And [it] seems like it's a complicated slog, you know, just figuring out what it will look like and what it will do. And yeah, things are real complicated on that front. 

IS: I want to go back to one of your columns, Ed Ayres, gave an opinion on, you quoted him, saying what Richmond does over the next three years, will define it going forward. He said, you have to have a conversation in which all the voices are heard. Do you have any thoughts about that? 

MPW: I mean, that's always the challenge. I mean, not just in Richmond, to ensure that all voices are heard. We tend to hear the same old voices all the time, it seems, and other voices get tuned out, and other voices never seem to really be at the table. So yeah, I mean, I think we've got a long way to go on that front. I mean, what obviously we had a poor people's movement last summer out on the streets, once you take it back into the political realm, you know, the corporate realm, the more establishment realm. And conversations tend to get more controlled. And I think it's the impulse of, you know, people in power to want to control those conversations, because that's really what power is. And the people, quote, unquote, unpredictable. And people in power don't like unpredictable. And I mean, that's the challenge to true democracy. And, you know, we democracies kind of want to run on a national level. I mean, I hope we can maintain it on a local level. But this is not a high watermark for democracy worldwide. 

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(Photo: Daniel Sangjib Min/RTD)

IS: And looking ahead to what do you think's next for the city in terms of the remaining monument? And, you know, reckoning with our legacy of white supremacy in the city? 

MPW: You know, certainly [I’d] like the litigation to be over regarding the Lee monument, who knows where that's going to go? I mean, it's I think it's unfortunate. You know, I'd like for us to get removal, completed, so we can focus on replacement, or what comes next, not just on the symbolism front, but just one, the tangible front of dealing with a lot of the issues that that those monuments embody, and the everyday lives of people. So yeah, I mean, I think the people, for the most part, have spoken on the monuments. I mean, it seems like even the resident's of Monument Avenue, for the most part, kind of want to move on. And not stay mired in that.  

Monument Avenue, you know, it still has beautiful bones. And, you know, what comes next should be exciting. We could have beautiful monuments and beautiful works of art that people aren't morally conflicted over, you know, there will always be differences of opinion about the value or the merits, and the aesthetics of art. But, you know, how does it serve us to have a beautiful statue? I mean, there are people who might view the Lee Monument as aesthetically wonderful, but this kid, you know, it's morally repugnant. And I'd like to see what's next. I'd like us to get to the point on that piece alone. Regarding Monument Avenue exploring what's next. 

IS: Like everyone else when you got the Pulitzer, I was overjoyed for you and overjoyed for the city as a whole and for the newspaper industry as well. 

MPW: I’m definitely a son of Richmond. I couldn't do what I do, I don't think, anyplace else. I mean, being a columnist in your hometown is the best job in the world.