William Winter’s journey has, in many respects, been Mississippi’s journey over the course of the last half-century.
Photos by James Patterson
It’s just after dawn and William Winter is walking his dog through his quiet neighborhood in the heart of Jackson, starting another busy day likely to include time in the prestigious Jackson law firm that bears his name, advocacy work on behalf of this cause or that and perhaps an evening watching baseball, reading a good book of history or speaking to some civic group.
At 85, William Winter just won’t stop.
Indeed, it has been that drive—at times even in the face of momentary defeat and even death threats—that has marked his life. Winter’s career in elective office was capped off with his election as governor in 1980 and passage in 1982 of the Education Reform Act, bringing state-funded kindergarten and other reforms to a public school system that had been sacrificed by the state’s power structure to battle desegregation.
However, it hardly started or stopped there.
Indeed, Winter’s mark on all of us—here in Jackson and some would argue throughout the nation—came from his journey battling for public schools and against raging segregationists in the name of moderation. Recognizing his stature today as Mississippi’s senior statesman, it’s hard to envision that he lost a race for Speaker of the House of Representatives, two campaigns for governor and his early attempts at passing the Education Reform Act in a stubbornly resistant Legislature.
Any of those defeats might end a typical political career. But more than two decades after he finally retired from elective politics, William Winter’s defeats at particular moments seem more like victories in the arch of history—the spearheads of progress. His opponents have more often faded into the pages of history, even as Winter’s stature has grown, focusing on an array of causes that generally related to racial reconciliation and public education.
“He made the significant steps in making America complete by making Mississippi a part of the nation,” the late David Halberstam, one of this nation’s most celebrated journalists, said in a 2004 interview with National Public Radio. “We were finally on our way as a whole country and being a more just society.”
Winter recently announced his retirement after 51 years as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, a role that kept him connected to his passionate and scholarly love of this state and its history.
“That’s too long for anyone,” Winter says with a smile. “You get to be 85 years old, and you don’t need to be presiding over a board of the state of Mississippi.”
But he is hardly going away. Even today, his calendar is full. Winter is an active participant in the activities of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, he chairs an official state task force developing Civil Rights-era curriculum for schools; he is a founding member of the Foundation for the Mid-South and its spin-off, a high-impact lending institution—the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta that works in low-income communities; the Eudora Welty Foundation; and he chairs the Kettering Foundation-supported National Issues Forum.
Those are only the long-term commitments, not including the many events at which he’s asked to speak, the causes to champion and the candidates to support.
“I’ve been out of the governor’s office 23 years, and those have been, I think, the most enjoyable of my life,” he says as he sits in his law office, politely entertaining yet one more interview before rushing to his next appointment. “There is no pressure to prove myself or win anything.”
William Forrest Winter’s journey has, in many respects, been Mississippi’s journey over the course of the last half-century: stumbling out of a blind allegiance to a segregated and unjust South, through the turbulence and violence of the Civil Rights era into a modern era with new promises and new challenges.
Born in 1923 in rural Grenada County, Winter grew up the son of a state legislator and attended the proverbial one-room school house. His middle name is a bow to the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Winter served in the United States Army in World War II where a segregated officer corps appears to have been among the early pricks at his conscience that would come to define so much of his career.
Elected to the state House of Representatives in 1947 while still attending Ole Miss, Winter was among a select class of 15 war veterans and freshman state legislators. Others included H.M. Ray (later United States Attorney during Mississippi’s turbulent years), and Soggy Sweat, whose regaling speech both opposing and supporting the legalization of whisky is still recalled at lighter moments in the statehouse today. Together they passed Mississippi’s Workers’ Compensation law.
Entering his second term in the statehouse as a legislator, Winter in 1955 made his first bold move with an almost unheard of challenge to unseat powerful sitting House Speaker Walter Sillers.
“I knew from the beginning that my chances were slim,” Winter recalls. “It then developed into a real race when J. P. Coleman, who had encouraged me to run, was elected Governor. Mr. Sillers then showed Governor Coleman a list of his supporters and convinced him that I could not make it.”
“I had over 50 votes pledged but couldn’t overcome the Sillers’ strength. I released all of my supporters (to vote for Sillers and not endanger their careers), but in a caucus at the King Edward Hotel the night before the voting, 41 of my supporters voted unanimously to carry it to the floor, where we lost.”
“I remember feeling disappointed but still proud that we made the effort. The conventional wisdom was that I had ended whatever political future I might have had. It really was the making of my later political success.”
Indeed, Coleman rewarded Winter just two years later when a vacancy occurred in the powerful office of State Tax Collector, which collected a tax on bootlegged whiskey. Winter ultimately recommended abolition of the office, but its statewide reach gave him a base for the future, including State Treasurer.
In 1967, he launched a long-shot bid for governor, but then catapulted ahead of a crowded pack to face staunch segregationist John Bell Williams for governor.
Despite leading the pack in the first Democratic Primary as he campaigned for more funding for schools and better highways, it proved to be one of Mississippi’s ugliest campaigns as Williams—seen as a martyr for his loss of power in Washington due to his states’ rights stance—savaged Winter’s relative moderation on race:
“IF WILLIAM WINTER IS ELECTED GOVERNOR, THE NEGROES WILL RUN MISSISSIPPI” one political handbill from that campaign read.
“The roof caved in as the old seg vote came together behind Williams. I really felt crushed after that defeat, because I had come from so far behind to lead the ticket in the first primary and then lost by a substantial margin,” Winter recalls.
Four years later, Winter was back, handily winning a race for lieutenant governor—a powerful post in its own right, of course, and a launching pad for a second run for governor. But, again, his plans for governor were crushed when failure to promptly respond to campaign attacks allowed a 60% standing in the pols to evaporate. Ultimately, Cliff Finch won.
“That was the greatest political disappointment of my life, and at that point I never expected to make another race. I was not crushed. I was just frustrated that I had not run a better race,” he says.
Of course, four years later, he did come back, rebounding off the troubled gubernatorial term of Finch. Even as governor, his push for education reforms failed in the Legislature until, finally, Winter rallied public opinion and rammed the reformers through in a December 1982 special session of the Legislature.
“When he failed, he was more determined than ever. I don’t think there’s any question,” says former aid and protégé Andrew Mullins who has edited a collection of Winter’s speeches entitled The Measure of Our Days published by the University Press of Mississippi. “He knew Mississippi needed to change, and he was trying to get into positions to make a difference.”
As the Mississippi Capitol begins filling up with a new crop of state legislators some 60 years after Winter was sworn in as a freshman state representative, Winter can offer some advice.
“Remember why you ran,” he says. “The legislators I served with who stood out are the ones that rose above the times…they weren’t afraid to stand up for the things that are important to the state.”