Before embarking on Forrest Fenn's treasure hunt, Northwestern alumnus Jim Miller had been comfortably occupying a safe, cubicle-like state-of-mind. Fenn's challenge coaxed him out into nature and the unknown.
“Have you ever really wanted something, really dreamed of it, but thought it was utterly unattainable — so unattainable that you didn’t actually consider what it might be like if it actually happened?”
That’s how Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams ’81 MS describes winning a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2021. “It has been such a whirlwind that I really haven’t had time to sit in it,” he says.
Williams received the prize in June 2021 for his writing that urged the removal of Confederate monuments in his hometown, Richmond, Va. The Pulitzer board cited Williams’ “penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city’s monuments to white supremacy.”
Richmond’s so-called Monument Avenue — a four-lane residential boulevard with a tree-lined median — once featured monuments of Confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and Confederate naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury, as well as a memorial to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.
Resistance to the monuments existed since the first was erected in 1890, Williams says, and there were various efforts to modify the boulevard and contend with the history it represents. After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, protesters dismantled the Davis statue, and the city subsequently removed the Stuart, Jackson and Maury monuments. After a legal battle that ended in the Virginia Supreme Court, the Lee monument was removed on Sept. 8, 2021.
“Change is incremental — but happens all at once,” Williams says. “John Mitchell Jr., who was an esteemed black journalist here and sat on the City Council, was very much opposed to erecting a Lee monument. He said, ‘Black men will put this statue up, and when the time comes they will take it down.’ So from the very beginning there was resistance. And folks chipped away and chipped away, and then it happened. You couldn’t see it. You felt like it was coming to no end at all, and then it just happened all at once.”
Born and raised in Richmond, Williams did not intend to work in journalism. “Journalism found me,” he says. “When I was coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s, there really weren’t any role models except people who worked for the Black newspaper.”
Williams attended Virginia Union University in Richmond with the goal of becoming a lawyer. He majored in English, wrote for the school newspaper and, after realizing he didn’t want to go into law, applied to graduate school at what is today the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “I figured that with all the enormous career possibilities that an English degree entailed, I needed to get some more credentials,” Williams jokes.
At Medill, Williams set his sights on sports writing. A Sports Illustrated baseball writer told him that a few years of hard news experience would help him break into the industry, and after graduation Williams started at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where he’s worked for almost 40 years.
“That wasn’t my plan,” Williams says. “I was going to stick around a couple of years and then move on. And I had a few opportunities over the years, but I always felt challenged by what I was doing.”
In 1992 Williams was named a columnist for the paper, becoming the first African American to hold the position. “Once you start writing opinions for your hometown newspaper, there's no better job in journalism as far as I’m concerned.”
Williams was not always an advocate for the removal of the Confederate monuments. “Initially I didn’t think about them at all,” he says. “Then I became vaguely aware of them in a mildly disdainful way, but I was not overly preoccupied with them.”
In his 40s, Williams ran through Monument Avenue for an annual 10K race, and he would “try to pretend the monuments weren’t there. We’d pose for pictures, and the monuments would invariably be in the background, and you’d just kind of shrug.”
After the death of tennis champion and humanitarian Arthur Ashe in 1993, Williams proposed a monument in honor of “Richmond’s native son” along Monument Avenue. With support from former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and former Richmond City Council member Henry W. “Chuck” Richardson, the city installed a monument in honor of Ashe in 1996.
“It was a way of diversifying and telling a fuller story of Richmond through Monument Avenue,” says Williams, whose columns advocated for such a transformation. “We felt like once Arthur Ashe became the Jackie Robinson of Monument Avenue, so to speak, that more would follow. Well, more didn’t follow because erecting a monument is an expensive endeavor. There was a lot of talk, but nothing seemed to happen.”
Efforts to add context to the existing monuments didn’t gain traction either. Williams was losing patience.
“And then Dylann Roof killed those folks in Charleston in the [Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal] Church, and I saw a picture of him posing with the Confederate flag and I just lost it,” Williams says of the South Carolina mass murder. “It just all coalesced in my mind: This is crazy. Why are we acquiescing to these huge, publicly maintained symbols of white supremacy and hate on our most prominent street?”
Williams wrote several columns advocating for the removal of the Confederate monuments in 2015, and he says those columns, like the efforts to diversify or contextualize Monument Avenue, were met with muted response.
“After I wrote those columns I heard a substantial number of ‘Amens. Yeah, you tell ’em. Amen, brother,’” he recalls. “But I also heard the loud noise of crickets. I think it speaks to the immutability of those statues that those columns didn’t move the needle as much as I would have hoped.”
Even after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and the murder of Heather Heyer in 2017, as the national conversation about Confederate symbols grew louder, “it seemed like nothing was going to happen,” Williams says. But after Floyd’s murder, “people were no longer of a mind to wait.
“There are people who are going to be upset about me giving them credit, but credit to the folks who just took matters into their own hands,” Williams says of the removal of the statues amid the protests during the summer of 2020. “You don’t have a right to complain, in my thinking, about people being lawless and taking matters into their own hands and yanking down those statues when, for years, people tried to go through the process. [They] tried to do it lawfully, tried to appeal to the conscience of our lawmakers and were met with massive resistance. … People just lose patience.
“There was something about the rawness of everything after George Floyd, coupled with the pandemic, that I think created heightened awareness, heightened empathy, heightened passions that brought us to this moment.”
If at first Williams was apathetic about Richmond’s Confederate monuments, today he is emphatic. “Those monuments represent a history of white resistance and a celebration of the defeat of Reconstruction,” he says. “They represent the reestablishment of a very old order of white supremacy.
“If there’s a community mindset to give reverence to white supremacy, you’re going to have a white supremacist society. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. If you can’t part with the symbols, why would you part with the actions, the behavior, the policies?”
With all five Confederate monuments removed from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, Williams is cautiously hopeful that momentum can be maintained.
“That energy is hard to sustain,” he says. “So that’s the challenge moving forward, as we attack the very tangible expressions of what those monuments meant, in terms of poverty and homelessness and evictions and injustice and all the other challenges that we face as a society that’s still very unequal.”
Clare Milliken is senior writer and producer in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.