By: Sid Salter
It is certainly no stretch of the truth to suggest that at the time of his death last week at the age of 97, former Mississippi Gov. William Winter was by and large beloved by the people of Mississippi.
Through his actions and his manner, Winter earned that status. The state’s Democrats lionized him, emulated him, and invoked his name in their own political affairs. Despite their steadfast disagreements over public policy, the state’s Republicans respected him, wisely realizing that well into Winter’s ninth decade, his fingers on the political scales still had significant weight.
Winter’s great gift was his ability to disagree agreeably. To friend or foe, Winter was courtly, respectful, and as kind as people would allow him to be. Even when angered or provoked, Winter was always measured and in control when he responded.
His signature accomplishment as governor was the passage of the Education Reform Act of 1982. Getting that legislation passed by a Mississippi Legislature that had no initial intention of passing it spoke to Winter’s ability to forge strong coalitions and not get hung up on who took credit for the outcome.
Winter’s 1982 education reform package championed by the governor and his “Boys of Spring” staffers – David Crews, Bill Gartin, John Henegan, Ray Mabus, Dick Molpus, and Andy Mullins. Former House Speaker Pro Tempore Robert G. Clark of Ebenezer and the late Tupelo business leader Jack Reed Sr. also played vital roles. The state’s newspapers were firmly in support of the reforms as well.
Winter shared the credit for the passage of the reforms generously. At Winter’s death on Dec. 19 – almost exactly 38 years to the day after passage of the historic education reforms – the sheer legislative improbability of that policy victory makes it endure in Mississippi political lore as “the Christmas Miracle.”
From that point forward, Winter’s reputation was that of a dogged progressive reformer, the standard-bearer for bringing Mississippi up to par with the rest of the country, and a firm supporter and facilitator of racial reconciliation in his home state. All of those accolades ring true.
But Winter was also a pragmatic politician who lived during the painfully slow and politically dangerous transition from monolithic segregation and Jim Crow laws to federal intervention to attain a modicum of integration. Today, no state in the union has more Black elected officials than does Mississippi.
His early career reflected the political realities of his day. As Dutch scholar Maarten Zwiers of an assistant professor in contemporary and U.S. history at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, wrote in a fascinating 2015 article in the University of Southern Mississippi’s Southern Quarterly entitled “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Segregationist Strategies and Democratic Party Politics in Mississippi, 1948 – 1960”:
“From the heyday of massive resistance until his (unsuccessful) 1967gubernatorial campaign, William Winter called himself a ‘Jim Eastland – John Stennis Democrat.’ Both senators championed the interests of white Mississippi, including segregation, while they also successfully managed to keep the state in the Democratic ranks until the 1950s.
“While Eastland did not shy away from making extremely racist claims and was an outspoken advocate of massive resistance to racial integration, Stennis based his opposition to Black civil rights more on constitutional arguments and followed a practical segregation course,” Zwiers wrote.
Young Winter, walking the tightrope between those two approaches, by 1962 was preaching compromise: “Compromise per se is not only not bad, but on the other hand is as necessary as breathing. What so many of these starry-eyed idealists could never bring themselves to understand was that in the world of politics, of all places, there is seldom room for total victory.”
Zwiers concluded: “The subsequent destruction of Jim Crow not only enfranchised Southern Blacks but also opened the way for a moderate like William Winter to become one of the most successful progressive governors in the history of Mississippi.”
Winter was also exceedingly persistent in his pursuit of the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion, losing to Democrat John Bell Williams in 1967 and Democrat Cliff Finch in 1975 before defeating Republican Gil Carmichael in 1979.