Paul Greenberg, the former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page editor who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for civil rights editorials that appeared while he was writing for the Pine Bluff Commercial, died Tuesday. He was 84.
The Democrat-Gazette reported Greenberg's death on its website Wednesday morning.
Greenberg wrote for the statewide daily paper from 1992 to 2018. Before that, he wrote for the Commercial for nearly three decades.
It was there that he won his Pulitzer, an award that came with $1,000 and a medal that he hung above his desk. Other winners that year included William Tuohey for his coverage of the Vietnam War and Norman Mailer, who took the general nonfiction prize for "The Armies of the Night." Greenberg was a finalist for the prize in 1978 and 1986.
A Louisiana native who joined the Commercial in 1962, he won the American Society of Newspaper Editors' 1981 Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary and the University of Missouri School of Journalism Medal of Honor, as well as awards named for H.L. Mencken and William Allen White, two of the biggest names in American editorial-writing history.
Byron Tate, editor of the Commercial, now published mostly virtually by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, worked with Greenberg at the Commercial from 1986 to 1990, and recalled the everyday power of his editorials. "Newspapers had a lot of sway when Paul was writing editorials for The Commercial, but his outsized intellect and writing ability put the newspaper on a plane like no other," Tate told Arkansas Business on Wednesday. "His words shook the halls of education, business and justice in Pine Bluff."
Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Ashley Wimberley said Greenberg was a titan of opinion writing. "Paul Greenberg proved the power of the pen to shape policy, persuade leaders to action and make for a better community," she said. "Our industry will miss his wisdom and insightful commentary."
Greenberg's editorials on civil rights certainly challenged conventional thinking in Pine Bluff in the 1960s, but he could also be a contrarian on that issue. He admired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King for what Greenberg saw as a message rooted in traditional values. "No wonder the young black radicals of the 1960s used to deride him as De Lawd," Greenberg wrote. "It was a toss-up whether his politics or his religion offended them more; the two were inseparable in his case. To watch this black Baptist preacher out of Alabama ... as he described his very American dream was to realize how easily his ideas could have come from a conservative political tract — if only conservative political tracts were better written."
Tate said it was an honor to work in the same newsroom with Greenberg.
"We were all just the little people," Tate said, referring the the members of the news staff. "We could write five stories about some injustice or wrongdoing, but nothing seemed to happen until Paul weighed in on the editorial page. That's when sparks flew."
As Arkansas Business noted when Greenberg retired in 2018, it was Greenberg who coined the nickname "Slick Willie" for former President Bill Clinton when Clinton was a young governor and long before his presidential run. Slick Willy's was a onetime watering hole at Union Station in Little Rock, but the nickname referred to what Greenberg saw as flaws under Clinton's glossy packaging.
In a September 2018 column announcing his retirement, Greenberg wrote that he longed "to be one of the shadows beyond the footlights in the great resounding auditorium called journalism" — that he yearned for "the leisure of rereading real literature instead of one's own dreary and all too debatable commentary on the transient news of the day."
He also mused on mortality.
"Old age can be a blessing if taken easily instead of rushing into it. And for all we know, death itself may be an even greater blessing," he wrote. "The angel of death can be more than welcome when he brings welcome relief, like sleep at the end of a busy day."