Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist awarded Pulitzer Prize

June 25, 2021
2019-20 Jepson School leader-in-residence honored for his commentary calling for the removal of Confederate monuments

Since becoming the first Black columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1992, Michael Paul Williams has steadfastly championed racial justice in Richmond and beyond. On June 11, he learned he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary for 2021 for a series of columns in which he argued passionately for the removal of the city of Richmond’s Confederate monuments.

The Pulitzer board bestowed journalism’s top prize on him 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.”

Williams brought his journalistic insights and fervor to the Jepson School of Leadership Studies when he, along with National Public Radio White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, served as the School’s 2019-20 leaders-in-residence. During classroom visits and a School-sponsored public discussion, he proclaimed the critical importance of a free press to a democratic society.

“We’re in an existential crisis in this democracy,” he said at the Jan. 29, 2020, leaders-in-residence discussion. “The press, the media, is at the frontlines of preserving that. They are fighting for democracy, they’re fighting for the people…. Please support your local media. It is important.”

Just how important became evident in the wake of the social unrest that exploded across the country following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. In Richmond, that unrest took the form of nightly Black Lives Matter protests that called for, among other things, the removal of monuments glorifying the Lost Cause.

In his columns, Williams persuasively and doggedly unpacked the history of white supremacy represented by the monuments and urged their removal as a first step toward racial justice.

Richmonders listened and acted. Monuments to Confederate generals fell like dominoes across the city. The Virginia Supreme Court will soon rule on the fate of the largest statue—that of General Robert E. Lee astride his horse—which still resides on Richmond’s Monument Avenue atop a plinth covered in protest graffiti.

Leadership studies professor Julian Hayter, a historian often quoted in Williams’ columns, praised the journalist for his pioneering spirit and journalistic integrity.

“He’s been a consistent, inimitable voice for justice at the Richmond Times-Dispatch—a newspaper that, until very recently, struggled to overcome its segregationist past,” Hayter said. “Very few geniuses are acknowledged for their gifts in real time—that he’s finally being recognized as an authority by the folks at Pulitzer gives me hope for the way forward. We’ll need him to help lead the way.” 

Reflecting on his chosen profession at the January 2020 Jepson leaders-in-residence event, Williams presciently said: “It’s the best job in the world….being at those pivotal points in the history of a community, of a state, of a nation…. I’m part of the wave of journalists who came in after Watergate. We saved this nation once. We’re going to save it again.”

Indeed, he’s doing just that.

Photo: 2019-20 Jepson School leaders-in-residence Michael Paul Williams and Ayesha Rascoe

Watch the video or listen to the podcast "Leading with Truth: Journalism as a Catalyst for Social Change," the 2019-20 leaders-in-residence panel discussion featuring Michael Paul Williams and Ayesha Rascoe. 

Read "A Salute to Mr. Williams," an op-ed by leadership studies professor Thad Williamson, whom Williams has quoted as a source in some of his columns.