I was only 14 but it was a scene I will never forget. In many ways, it changed my life.
It was 1967 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and William Winter was running for the Democratic nomination for governor. His opponent was Congressman John Bell Williams, a rabid segregationist. Winter, a Jackson lawyer who was the state treasurer and had previously served as the state tax collector, was the “moderate” on race. There was a question you heard a lot in those days: “Is he good on race?” Winter was good on race.
That same year, 1967, Byron De La Beckwith was running for lieutenant governor. Beckwith had been tried twice for the murder of Medgar Evers, each trial ending in a hung jury. Based on that publicity, he was a candidate for statewide office. His slogan: “A Straight Shooter.” I still have one of his banners I took from the side of a barn in Neshoba County, where Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman had been murdered and buried in a dam.
That was Mississippi in 1967, so it was no surprise that William Winter—whom John Bell Williams attacked as a “dedicated, demonstrated liberal”—was getting a lot of death threats. On this foggy night in Biloxi, Winter was scheduled to speak at a rally held at a high school football field. In the locker room before he went out, a group of men were trying to convince him not to speak. There had been a death threat—an anonymous phone call to his campaign manager from a man claiming he had been in a meeting of “an insane bunch of idiotic fanatics” who planned to shoot Winter: “Your man has been marked.” The call was recorded and the tape played for the candidate.
Winter had no formal security but there was a group of off-duty and former law-enforcement types who tried to keep him safe. My dad, a former FBI agent, was one. This night, the handful of men, including my father, tried to persuade Winter not to address the rally. But Winter insisted: He was going to speak. One of the men went out to a car and came back with a bulky bulletproof vest. Winter joked as he put it on. A couple of the men left and came back with rifles they hid under raincoats. Then Winter opened the locker-room door and walked out into the crowd. I thought it was the bravest thing I ever saw. If this was politics, I wanted it to be part of my life.
Winter lost that race for governor, was later was elected lieutenant governor, and lost another race for governor in 1975 to Cliff Finch, who was most likely connected to the Dixie Mafia. My mom traveled with Mrs. Winter in that second gubernatorial campaign and I, in my early twenties, was a frequent driver. It was yet another classic lost opportunity for Mississippi as Finch, who campaigned with a lunch bucket, mocked Winter for his focus on education. Finch later ran for president, a campaign that peaked when he posed nude in a heart-shaped bathtub.
Now a two-time loser, Winter made one last run for governor in 1979. And won.
A 2014 documentary called The Toughest Job chronicles Winter’s fight for education reform. Rather than integrate schools following Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi had ended compulsory education in 1954. When Winter was elected governor a quarter of a century later, Mississippi was the only state in the nation with no laws requiring school attendance. He waged a fierce battle for fundamental education change and finally, by one vote in his last year in office, the legislature passed the most sweeping education reform in the state’s history. In that one short term—at the time, Mississippi governors could only serve one term, a relic of Reconstruction when the legislature wanted to be the center of power—William Winter changed Mississippi forever.
Like all Mississippians, William Winter’s life was played in the key of race. He spoke often of growing up playing with black children on his family’s farm only to see his school bus pass them on the way to his all-white school. In his officer-training class at Fort Benning in summer 1944, Winter’s platoon included two black soldiers—his first close contact on an equal footing with black men. After receiving his commission as a second lieutenant, he was assigned in fall 1944 as an instructor to one of the two all-black regiments at Fort McClellan—a rare chance for white officers to serve closely with black noncommissioned officers and soldiers. It had a profound effect on Winter and he often spoke of his first experience under a system that was intended to erase a color barrier. When I drove Winter in his 1975 campaign, he talked about what it had been like when he had driven Jim Eastland in his first Senate campaign in 1942, about how much Mississippi had changed and yet how little.
As a pro-education Southern governor, Winter was a role model for Bill Clinton—and as president, Clinton appointed Winter to serve on his national commission on race, “One America in the 21st Century.” It held a series of forums around the country and after one in 1998 at Ole Miss, the University founded the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. The institute’s offices face the Grove, the heart of the Ole Miss campus where, in 1962, two died in a riot the night before James Meredith was admitted as the school’s first black student. Before the end of that week, there were 30,000 National Guardsmen in Oxford in what was arguably the last battle of the Civil War.
In 2001, Winter led an effort to change the state flag, which was basically the Confederate battle flag. That effort failed—but he lived long enough to see the flag taken down last summer and a new one adopted this fall. One of the last conversations I had with him was a couple of years ago and we talked about change in Mississippi. “Watch the flag,” he said. “It’ll come down. Just have faith.”
William Winter died on December 18 at the age of 97. When the COVID pandemic is no longer a factor, there will be a memorial service for Governor Winter at the state capitol. Over that service will fly the new state flag.