RICHMOND, Va. -- Michael Paul Williams, a veteran journalist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary Friday for a series of “penetrating and historically insightful columns" about the process of dismantling the city's Confederate monuments.
Williams’ winning work was written after the murder of George Floyd, which sparked the removal of monuments to Confederates, colonizers and tyrants around the world. Debate over the issue was particularly resonant, and painful, in Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy steeped in Civil War history and Lost Cause iconography.
“We are now a city in search of heroes and causes we can all rally around. (Confederate Gen. Stonewall) Jackson never qualified. Wednesday, under a gray sky, his likeness was lifted from a perch it never should have occupied in a just and evolved society,” Williams, a Richmond native, wrote in July in one of his winning columns, after workers removed the first of many Confederate statues the mayor ordered off city property.
The newspaper's leadership said in a joint statement that Williams' commentary was the “centerpiece" of its coverage of Richmond's legacy of inequity.
“This honor recognizes Michael Paul’s dedication to shining a bright light on Richmond’s sordid history while holding the community accountable for a better tomorrow,” said publisher and president Paul Farrell, executive editor and vice president of news Paige Mudd and managing editor Mike Szvetitz.
In 1992, Williams became the first Black columnist at the newspaper, which his biography on the Pulitzer site notes was an outlet that once endorsed Massive Resistance, the state's official policy of opposition to public school integration.
Williams, 62, is a graduate of Virginia Union University and Northwestern University and is a former Nieman Fellow, another of journalism's highest honors.
Interviewed while driving into the newsroom Friday afternoon to celebrate with colleagues, he said he was on deadline for a weekend column when he got a call from Szvetitz.
“I didn’t know what to think of it. I'd frankly forgotten all about the Pulitzers," Williams said. "When he told me the news I guess my reaction was utter disbelief, somewhat profane disbelief, followed by tears.”
Until the removal process began last year, Richmond had one of the nation's most prominent collection of Confederate statuary, in particular five enormous pieces along its historic Monument Avenue.
Williams said that for years, he didn't spend much time thinking or writing about taking down those monuments because “it seemed implausible.”
He said that in the 1990s, he used his columns to advocate for getting tennis great Arthur Ashe his spot of honor on the avenue.
It was only after the 2015 massacre of nine Black church members in South Carolina by a white supremacist that Williams said he began to call for the monuments to come down. But ultimately years passed before Floyd's killing would lead to their removal.
Praise for Williams flowed from the newsroom staff and other Virginia journalists on Friday.
Gov. Ralph Northam also weighed in, saying he was thrilled to see Williams' win.
“His insightful columns never pull punches and always raise tough questions that need to be asked, especially as Richmond and Virginia continue to grapple with a painful and complex history," Northam said in a statement. "Congratulations on this very well-deserved honor.”
Michael Paul Williams' insightful columns never pull punches and always raise the tough questions that need to be asked—especially as Richmond and Virginia continue to grapple with a painful and complex history.— Governor Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) June 11, 2021
Congratulations, @RTDMPW on this well-deserved honor. https://t.co/6u6FMXiJl7