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?”
Hell yes! Makes me proud to be an alum. Thank you, Michael Paul Williams, and congratulations on your Pulitzer Prize. Such important work.
—Cecily Williams ’95 Portland, Ore., via Northwestern Magazine