A ‘fearless’ voice: Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts retiring after 31 years

For more than 30 years, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts has entertained and enlightened millions of readers, first as a sharp-eared music critic with a deep love for classic R&B, then as a columnist tackling such complex subjects as culture, race, poverty and politics.

Over the past several years, a divisive period in American history, the nationally syndicated Pitts captured America and its struggles from a progressive point of view. His writing was furious but insightful, ironic but eloquent. It was always compulsively readable.

Now Pitts, who was hired by the Herald in 1991 and will be 65 in October, is retiring. It’s time, he said.

“There’s a certain sense of emotional investment that goes into writing a column,” he said. “And I’m emotionally exhausted.”

Among Pitts’ nationally famous columns was his fiery response to 9/11 (“Did you want to tear us apart?” he demanded of the terrorists. “You just brought us together.”) He wrote about the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. White poverty and the devastating effects of opioids. Neo-Nazis vomiting hatred in Charlottesville. He drew fans and critics from across the political spectrum and never let those he saw as a threat to democracy off easy.

Leonard Pitts speaks to the graduates at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2008.
Leonard Pitts speaks to the graduates at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2008.

That always included the most powerful political figures in the country. One column, which ran with the headline “Mr. President: ‘Just who the hell do you think you are?’ “ drew anger — and much applause from readers.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, educated at the University of Southern California and a die-hard L.A. Lakers fan, Pitts is a three-time recipient of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Award of Excellence and was chosen NABJ’s 2008 Journalist of the Year. In 2016, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists 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 won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004.

Monica Richardson, executive editor of the Miami Herald, said Pitts has a “rare” voice that will be missed tremendously.

“Leonard has dealt with race and politics and culture with an authoritative voice without apology. ... He says what people are thinking and can’t find the words to say,” she said. “He had a true following. ... Some people might be glad to see him go. They might have loved to hate him. But he has left such a legacy. He’s somebody everybody wants to have a conversation with.

“He left a mark not just in South Florida but around the world. There aren’t a lot of columnists around who are fearless in his way.”

Pitts said that he’ll always remember the support of the Miami Herald and his co-workers, especially after Hurricane Andrew destroyed his home in Perrine in 1992. He, his wife, Marilyn, and five kids moved into the home of then-theater critic Christine Dolen for a couple of months.

Leonard Pitts shows off his shirt that reads “Someday a woman will be president” in 1996.
Leonard Pitts shows off his shirt that reads “Someday a woman will be president” in 1996.

“Andrew was one of the things that let me know I was working for a special place,” he said. “The way people came together to take care of each other. Those acts of generosity I’ll always treasure. . ... The Herald gave me this amazing freedom to write pretty much what I wanted and frame the way I saw the world, and then they stood behind me.”

Pitts, whose final column will run Dec. 14, doesn’t plan to stop writing. Author of the novels “The Last Thing You Surrender,” “Grant Park,” “Freeman” and “Before I Forget,” the nonfiction book “Becoming Dad” and another of collected columns, he plans to turn his attention to fiction.

“I promised myself at some point in life I was going to enjoy writing books full time,” he said. “That’s the thing I always wanted to do. I always said I had the second best job in the world, writing for a newspaper and writing what I wanted and getting paid for it. But the best job is that job Stephen King and those other guys have.”

He said he’ll miss the platform his column provided, the push and pull between the obligation to tell the truth and leaving his readers with hope (which, he admits, has been harder of late). He fears for the continuing health of the American democracy, but even though he won’t be churning out 600 words twice a week on the subject, he’s not quite ready to abandon hope.

“Even at this late date, it’s not too late for this country to turn itself around,” he said. “This country has a genius for reinvention.”