Leonard Pitts Jr.

The syndicated commentaries of Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts are among the most widely read in the United States, appearing in about 150 newspapers. Pitts’s columns offer insightful commentary on the American experience, particularly the African-American experience. Perhaps his most famous column was a stirring call to American unity penned the day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Pitts drew on his own childhood as well as the lives of other African-American men in his bestselling book Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood. After several nominations, Pitts was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004.

Leonard Garvey Pitts, Jr., was born on October 11, 1957, in Orange, California. He and his three siblings grew up in the impoverished South Central section of Los Angeles, and his home life was far from ideal. His father drank heavily, let disputes escalate to gunfire, and was often unemployed. Yet Pitts remained philosophical about his upbringing, quoted as saying by reviewer Tim Engle in the Houston Chronicle that “I tend to think I was probably a lot luckier than some kids whose fathers weren’t there.” Pitts showed writing ability from the start. He whizzed through primary and secondary schools, skipping several grades, and entered the University of Southern California on a scholarship at age 15.

On September 12, 2001, Pitts faced the difficult task of addressing the terrorist attacks of the previous day. “It’s my job to have something to say,” His words were simple and galvanizing. “Did you want us to respect your cause?” he asked the still unidentified planners of the attack. “You just damned your cause.…Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.” He called the American people “a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political, and class division, but a family nonetheless.” On that day, he wrote, “the family’s bickering is put on hold. As Americans we will weep, as Americans we will mourn, and as Americans, we will rise in defense of all that we cherish.”

Over 30,000 e-mails flowed in (“I stopped counting,” Pitts told Editor & Publisher), and the columnist had to admit to mixed feelings on seeing the number of newspapers carrying his column jump by 10 percent. The column was circulated around the World Wide Web, reprinted in poster form, set to music, and widely quoted by politicians and television hosts. It brought Pitts an award for outstanding commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors and a Columnist of the Year nod from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.