You know how kids go through phases? You know how the average little boy or girl wants to be a doctor this week, a video game designer next week? Leonard Pitts, Jr. never did that.
He says that from the tender age of five years old – little more than a “fetus with pretensions,” as he puts it – he knew what wanted to do. Indeed, he knew what he was put here to do. We are talking about a very long time ago: when Leonard Pitts was five, John F. Kennedy was still in the White House, “Whites Only” signs were still on the walls, and the Beatles had not yet invaded America.
The world has changed a great deal since then. But one thing never did.
In a career that now spans 43 years, Leonard Pitts, Jr. has worked as a columnist, a college professor, a radio producer and a lecturer. But those are just the job titles. If you ask him what he does – what he is – he’ll tell you now what he would have told you then.
He is a writer.
Millions of people are glad he is. They read him every week in one of the most popular newspaper columns in the country. Many more have come to know him through a series of critically-acclaimed books, including his latest, a novel of race, faith and World War II called The Last Thing You Surrender.
Pitts’ stubborn devotion to the art and craft of words has yielded many awards, chief among them the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
But that was only the capstone of a career filled with prizes for literary excellence. In 1997, Pitts took first place for commentary in division four (newspapers with a circulation of over 300,000) in the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors’ Ninth Annual Writing Awards competition. He is a two-time recipient of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Award of Excellence, and was chosen NABJ’s 2008 Journalist of the Year. He is a five-time recipient of the Atlantic City Press Club’s National Headliners Award and a six-time recipient of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Green Eyeshade Award. In 2001, he received the American Society of Newspaper Editors prestigious Award For Commentary Writing and was named Feature of the Year in the column writing division by Editor and Publisher magazine. In 2002, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists awarded Pitts its inaugural Columnist of the Year award; in 2016, it named him to its Hall of Fame. In 2002 and in 2009, GLAAD Media awarded Pitts the Outstanding Newspaper Columnist award. In 2017, he was awarded the prestigious Missouri Honor Medal for “distinguished service to journalism.” He has received four honorary doctorates.
Pitts’ work has made him an in-demand lecturer. He maintains a rigorous speaking schedule that has taken him to colleges, civic groups and professional associations all over the country. He has also taught at a number of institutions of higher learning, including Hampton University, Ohio University, the University of Maryland, and Virginia Commonwealth University. In the fall of 2011, he was a visiting professor at Princeton, teaching a course in writing about race.
Twice each week, millions of newspaper readers around the country seek out his rich and uncommonly resonant voice. In a word, he connects with them. Nowhere was this demonstrated more forcefully than in the response to his initial column on the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Pitts’ column, “We’ll Go Forward From This Moment,” an angry and defiant open letter to the terrorists, circulated the globe via the Internet. It generated upwards of 30,000 emails, and has since been set to music, reprinted in poster form, read on television by Regis Philbin and quoted by Congressman Richard Gephardt as part of the Democratic Party’s weekly radio address.
Tavis Smiley called Leonard Pitts “the most insightful and inspiring columnist of his generation.”
And when Pitts won his Pulitzer, Bob Costas wondered, “What took them so long?”
Leonard Pitts was born and raised in Southern California. He was awarded a degree in English from the University of Southern California at the age of 19, having entered school at 15 on a special honors program. Since 1995, he and his wife have lived in Bowie, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D. C.