In 2000, when William Winter was asked to chair the first commission charged with tackling the thorny subject of changing Mississippi’s state flag, he was met with lots of personal insults from flag supporters.
At one of the nastiest public hearings, held in Moorhead, a hot-headed adversary told the former governor, “You’re worthy of being tarred and feathered and run out of this state.”
Winter, as was typical of him, did not lose his composure. Rather, he said calmly but cuttingly, “I have been heckled by better men than you.”
Winter did not immediately win that battle. It would take another two decades before Mississippi would change enough to change its racially divisive flag.
But the episode typified the type of brave but ever dignified leader Winter was. He was willing to take on what seemed, at the moment, like unpopular causes, would not back down in the face of opposition or personal attacks, and more times than not would be proven right, even if it might take a while for the rest of the state to catch up with him.
Winter, who died Friday at the age of 97, was persistent, never taking initial defeat as the final result when the cause was just. Though he had successfully campaigned for lesser elective offices, twice he lost to less able candidates when he ran for governor. When he finally did win in 1979, he made the most of the one term that Mississippi allowed governors at that time. Together with a progressive group of smart, young aides, he tackled the state’s No. 1 handicap: its public education system and lack of widespread government support for it.
It took Winter, butting heads against a recalcitrant legislative leadership, three tries to get his sweeping education reform plan passed. The notion seems ridiculous today, but into the early 1980s, public kindergartens and compulsory school attendance laws were considered radical ideas in Mississippi. The Education Reform Act of 1982, passed during a special session shortly before Christmas, was significant not only for creating a path for improving the state’s K-12 schools, but also for transforming Mississippi’s racially based negligence of many of them. Winter’s mantra — “The only road out of poverty runs past the schoolhouse door” — became accepted political wisdom in Mississippi and has informed the state’s leadership, Democratic and Republican, ever since.
Winter will go down in Mississippi history as not only one of its best governors but one of its best former governors, too, for what he did after leaving office.
His chairing of the 2000 flag commission was part of his dedication to racial reconciliation. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, Winter was tabbed to be one of the co-chairmen of a National Advisory Board for Race Relations. From that effort, an institute for racial reconciliation was created at Winter’s alma mater, the University of Mississippi. The institute, eventually named for him, continues to operate today as a force to help communities work their way through their troubled racial past.
Winter blended his dedication to better race relations with his nearly lifelong interest in the state’s history. A board member of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for 50 years, he was instrumental in the effort that resulted in the building of the state’s side-by-side and newest museums, the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
Winter, a native of Grenada, loved the state of his birth, but he also knew it could be better. He made it his life mission, both in politics and outside of it, to do what he could to help move Mississippi closer to its potential. Because of him, it is.