You don’t need us to tell you: The past two years have been without precedent.
From the pandemic to the George Floyd protests to an attempted overthrow of the government, we seem to be fulfilling that apocryphal Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
What Richmond has gone through is similarly unprecedented. Not long ago, Monument Avenue’s Confederate statuary seemed immovable; that whatever future Richmond forged would somehow have to include these symbols of Lost Cause mythology. The protests sparked by the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police changed all that.
Though the removal of the monuments was an ancillary demand to protesters’ primary goal of curbing police brutality, the toppling of these Confederate generals – first by protesters, then, finally, by the city – gave rise to the feeling that real, substantive change was possible. This September, Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Monument, the nation’s largest Confederate statue, was taken down by the state. In late December, its pedestal was removed.
Throughout these developments, Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams helped us understand the meaning of these monuments and their removal through his incisive commentary. His work was recognized this June when he was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns about the city’s Confederate monuments. To many longtime readers, it was an award well overdue. [Style Weekly first noted that Williams deserved to win the Pulitzer for his ongoing commentary about the monuments in its Feb. 13, 2018 issue].
In his nearly three decades of columns at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the 63-year-old has remained unafraid to challenge the status quo, to hold politicians accountable and weigh in on contentious issues, including our identity as the former capital of the Confederacy.
Even since his win, the native Richmonder has continued to illuminate our discourse on controversial issues, including the removal of the Lee Monument pedestal, the construction of a new George Wythe High School and the Richmond Police Department’s lack of reforms.
“The commonwealth has been enriched because of trailblazers like Michael Paul Williams,” says U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who was first elected to Richmond City Council in 1994 and served as the city’s mayor from 1998 to 2001. “Michael has shined a spotlight on some of the most pressing issues in Virginia’s last three decades and given a voice to historically marginalized communities.”
For his insights in explaining where we’ve been and where we want to go, for his dogged insistence in speaking truth to power, and for his continued efforts to make the Richmond Times-Dispatch more reflective of the communities it covers, Style Weekly has named Michael Paul Williams its 2021 Richmonder of the Year.
On Nov. 24, 2021, the verdict came out: Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who had been jogging in a subdivision in Georgia. To Williams, the case hit close to home.
After first living in a Black neighborhood near Byrd Park as a child, Williams moved to Henrico County with his family around the age of 10. One day, circa 1970, Williams and some friends cut through a white neighborhood to get to Henrico’s Brookland Middle School to shoot hoops and run on the track. On the way back through that neighborhood, they were shot at with buckshot. The police were called.
“And that was it,” Williams recalls in a column about the incident. “There were no arrests, no charges and no justice. The memories of how that episode played out, and the Arbery murder and trial, are triggering five decades later.”
It’s insights like these that help illuminate the issues of the day for readers.
Williams’ career at the Richmond Times-Dispatch began as an intern in 1981 after obtaining his undergrad degree in English at Virginia Union University and a master’s in journalism at Northwestern University. After nine months at the paper, Williams became a staff reporter, initially covering Hampton Roads and the Middle Peninsula from the RTD’s Williamsburg bureau. At the time, he was one of the few Black reporters in newsroom.
After years spent covering the Chesterfield County School Board, Richmond City Council and Richmond School Board, Williams became a columnist for the paper in 1992 when Media General merged the Richmond News Leader, its afternoon paper, into the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Both papers once promoted segregation and Massive Resistance, a term for the broad Southern opposition to the civil rights movement; the News Leader was where James J. Kilpatrick became one of the nation’s leading proponents of segregation as its editorial page editor.
In a majority-Black city, Williams was the first Black opinion columnist for either paper.
“Richmond was missing that point of view for a long time,” says Bonnie Winston, managing editor of the Richmond Free Press and Williams’ former editor at the RTD. “We’ve always had a large African American population [in Richmond], and of course that voice needs to be reflected in the media, and particularly in the daily news that ignored it for so long. It’s really a critical voice.”
In his first column, Williams took issue with the fact that students at Hanover County’s Stonewall Jackson Middle School were allowed to wear pro-Confederacy clothing, but not T-shirts featuring Malcolm X. Over the years, Williams received pushback at times from both readers and editors. While in France on his honeymoon in 1999, he called into his work voicemail and found two death threats waiting for him.
“Michael Paul Williams has meant so much to local Black organizers for years and will continue to do so. We say that [he] gives street cred to a major publication in the commonwealth,” says Chelsea Higgs Wise, host of the podcast Race Capitol, co-founder of marijuana reform advocacy group Marijuana Justice, and an organizer who was heavily involved in last year’s protests. She notes the importance of holding up a counternarrative to the city’s dominant, white narrative: “Fifty years from now, 100 years from now, we will be able to look back into the 1990s and 2020s and say that Black storytellers were demanding truth and telling truth, even in really hard and oppressive situations like pandemics and uprisings and protests. He stood strong.”
At the RTD, that role has included mentoring young reporters and helping reshape the newsroom to be more reflective of the communities it covers. In the early 1990s, when the city was considering the placement of a monument to African American humanitarian and tennis great Arthur Ashe, Williams argued that it should be placed on Monument Avenue, where it eventually landed. The placement of the Arthur Ashe Monument was the first challenge to Monument Avenue’s Lost Cause iconography.
“He’s able to tap into the spirit of forward thinking for the city, and he’ll continue to do so as long as he’s on staff,” says Winston, who was the first Black full-time reporter on the RTD’s staff. “He has a depth of insight, and lot of that is for the vision of the city and what’s ahead.”
In 2000, Williams became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He began advocating for the removal of Richmond’s Confederate monuments in 2015 after the massacre of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof; photos circulated at the time of Roof posing with Confederate iconography.
Still, there wasn’t public momentum to remove the city’s monuments until the death of George Floyd. In columns that the Richmond Times-Dispatch submitted for the Pulitzer, Williams said the city could no longer abide these symbols of white supremacy.
On June 11 of this year, Williams received a phone call at home from Mike Szvetitz, his managing editor, and learned of his Pulitzer win. A Champagne toast at the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s newsroom spilled over to Penny Lane Pub down the street. Since then, Williams has also been named the 2021 recipient of the Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square, an award given to storytellers who have had a meaningful impact on public dialogue.
Asked about how his life has changed since the win, Williams remains humble: “I’m a lot more in demand than I used to be,” he says.
More recently, Williams weighed in on the pedestal for the Lee Monument coming down. During the George Floyd protests, the graffiti-covered pedestal served as a space for reflection and remembrance for the Black Lives Matter movement, surrounded by tributes to lives lost through police brutality.
Named the most influential piece of protest art since World War II by The New York Times Style Magazine, some compared it to the Berlin Wall because it was a symbol of oppression repurposed by those it once oppressed. This December, the administrations of Gov. Ralph Northam and Mayor Levar Stoney announced it would be taken down without public input.
Some activists took issue with the loss of the shrine; Williams wrote that removing the pedestal was the best way to protect it, as well as engender unity.
“It’s proper. I understand how people are conflicted about it, and some people are very much upset that it’s being removed,” Williams says. “But I concluded that I could not really justify replacing one polarizing monument with another.”
Williams hopes the pedestal will be reinstalled on the grounds of a museum where it can be properly preserved and maintained [on Dec. 30 it was announced that Richmond’s Confederate monuments, including the Lee Monument and its pedestal, would be given to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia]. In its place, he’d like to see a monument or work of art “that everyone could rally around, that everyone could gravitate toward that would create a statement that would not only bring the community together, but be an expression of community values that we all should be embracing.”
Even with a Pulitzer under his belt, Williams is still working for a paper under siege. Alden Global Capital LLC, a predatory hedge fund that shut down Style Weekly this September (it was then acquired by Midlothian-based VPM Media Corporation, the parent company of VPM, Virginia’s home for public media), announced a bid in November to buy Lee Enterprises Inc., the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s parent company. In response, Lee approved a shareholder rights plan, also known as a poison pill, to prevent hedge fund Alden from acquiring more than 10% of the company.
Asked about this, Williams defers to a statement Holly Prestidge, president of the Richmond Newspapers Professional Association and RTD reporter, gave to the Virginia Mercury: “Our jobs are at stake, and further cuts to our already lean newsroom weaken our ability to cover our communities in deep, meaningful ways,” Prestidge said. “The impact will be severe, and at a time when reliable, professional news reporting is needed more than ever.”
Regarding our current moment, and what he hopes the new year will bring, Williams says Richmonders need to remain vigilant and devoted to making the changes that need to happen.
“It’s not the summer of 2020 anymore, and a lot of momentum has been lost,” he says. “No one should be doing an end zone dance. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’ve taken down symbols, but no one should be feeling complacent, and no one should be declaring victory.”
In the face of so many obstacles, how do we not despair?
“Someone like myself, who’s descended from the people I’m descended from, we don’t despair because you realize, however screwed up things are now, it’s a piece of cake compared to what our ancestors went through. They were strong people. We are strong people. And however we’re feeling about the nation right now, it’s a better place than it was back then,” he says.
“We don’t despair because we come to the realization that struggle is part of life, and it’s always been this way, and we really have no choice but to hang in there and keep fighting.”