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Michael Paul Williams On His Pulitzer Commentary On Monument Avenue In Richmond, Va.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

(Reading) Richmond must stop waging war with the past and fight for its future. We've got to leave the lies behind.

These words - written at the height of last summer's racial justice protests - helped Michael Paul Williams, the Richmond Times Dispatch columnist, win the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Williams is a Richmond native who has long focused his writing on the relationship Black residents in Richmond have with Monument Avenue, a thoroughfare in the city that used to be dotted with Confederate statues. Michael Paul Williams joins us now.

Welcome, and congratulations.

MICHAEL PAUL WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you so much.

CHANG: You know, as a native of Richmond, can you just describe the Monument Avenue that you grew up with? Like, what was it like for you personally to grow up and mix with these statues?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's funny. Growing up as a child in Richmond in the 1960s, Monument Avenue was a place that existed but was not a space that we frequented. Monument Avenue historically has not been a welcoming place for African Americans in Richmond. A man in the 1990s was arrested for actually disturbing the peace, as I'm recalling, walking home from a hospital where he was employed on Monument Avenue in the wee hours of the morning. Actually, he had to go before the court, where he was asked why he didn't walk on Broad Street. So just that question said to me that this is a street not for us.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, we have said that you have spent many, many years writing about these monuments. And you have said that, after Dylann Roof murdered nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, that your columns shifted from asking what could be added to Monument Avenue to demanding that these monuments come down. Explain why that shift happened.

WILLIAMS: Acquiescence was no longer an option. Up until that point, Monument Avenue was a place that I thought we could fix in some way. A lot of us thought that, if we could add a more complete telling of history, that it would fix what ails Monument Avenue. And after Dylann Roof I came to the conclusion that was no longer possible because what we were trying to fix was unfixable.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, during last summer's racial justice protests, we saw people in Richmond interacting with Monument Avenue in these totally new ways, right? We saw kids playing basketball under Robert E. Lee's 60-foot statue. We saw protesters toppling other statues. What is the city's vision for reimagining Monument Avenue?

WILLIAMS: I think part of the reimagining took place in which you just described. And just for us to have reimagined it in the way that we did this past summer totally changed that dynamic, the energy, the spirit of the street. And we've got to capture that somehow in however we decide to reimagine it permanently. I have heard no small number of people saying that they would like the pedestal of the Lee monument, which - and Lee being the one statue that remains while we have litigation - to remain as is, to remain there. And you've seen the graffiti, I'm sure, in photographs, if not in person, on that monument. It became a memorial to people who had been killed in interactions with law enforcement, and there are people who feel like that was as honest an expression of what Monument Avenue meant to them.

CHANG: Would you like to see the pedestal remain with the graffiti still on it?

WILLIAMS: I like it. I think it's historic, and it's honest. And, yes, some of the messages are profane. Some of the messages, I'm sure, would not go down easy with law enforcement. But the aspiration that was expressed there is so different than what that monument embodied before that we'd commission a monument to do something that would never be as authentic as what that pedestal is right now.

CHANG: Yeah. What do you think winning a Pulitzer Prize, winning recognition for work that criticizes and demands the removal of Confederate statues - what does that say about where we are now, you think?

WILLIAMS: I think it says we're at a point of interrogation of things that we've long accepted without question. We're at a point where we realize structural racism and white supremacy are maladies, conditions of the nation that we've got to address if this nation is going to survive. We've put it off. We've put it off, and there's pushback to addressing it now, as you well know. We don't even want to teach it. We have a holiday the Juneteenth, but we don't want to teach our children the story behind Juneteenth, the pain behind Juneteenth, about the enslavement behind Juneteenth and what all that means. And I think what this award means is that people are in a space of listening who maybe weren't in that place before.

CHANG: Yeah. Michael Paul Williams is a columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch and the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

Thank you very much for joining us today, and congratulations again.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS PASCHBERG'S "SPARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.