JACKSON, Miss. (Mississippi Today) – Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, who championed education initiatives, job creation and racial harmony throughout his life, died Friday at age 97.
Known as Mississippi’s Education Governor, Winter secured passage of landmark educational initiatives in 1982 bringing kindergartens, compulsory school attendance, and a range of other key reforms to a state plagued by poverty and illiteracy. During his remarkable 75 years of public service, Winter linked education with economic development in the nation’s poorest state, observing, “The road out of the poor house runs past the school house.”
In remarks made in 2003, the historian David Halberstam called Winter “Mississippi’s best and strongest governor of modern times.” Halberstam went on to say, “Winter, more than any other politician, is the architect of the new Mississippi and the new America. By contrast, we are all too aware of politicians who can play to the darker side of our nature.”
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Winter stood in staunch opposition to the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils — organizations which advocated for strict racial segregation, at times through violent means.
In 1967, Winter ran for governor for the first time. After leading in the first primary, his life was threatened by the Klan for his open-minded stance on race. Persisting with the campaign despite death threats, Winter was ultimately defeated in the second primary by John Bell Williams.
Winter’s political courage was recognized on the national stage when he received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in 2008. Presidential adviser Vernon Jordan eloquently commented that “Governor Winter exhibited courage throughout his career, a willingness to speak out, to stand up, to be daring.”
After service in the U.S. Army during World War II, Winter was elected to the Mississippi Legislature in 1947 while still a student at the Ole Miss Law School. In a bid for progressive reforms, Winter ran for speaker of the House against the long-serving and powerful House Speaker Walter Sillers. The bid was unsuccessful but solidified Winter’s reputation as a courageous advocate of political, economic and educational reforms.
Winter went on to serve as state tax collector, state treasurer, lieutenant governor and ultimately as governor from 1980 to 1984.
While serving as governor, Winter’s progressive educational initiatives were defeated twice by a recalcitrant Mississippi Legislature. Only on his third attempt, and after mounting an intensive effort to gain grassroots citizen support, were Winter’s educational reforms finally approved by a scant one vote. The Clarion-Ledger newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service based on its in-depth coverage of the legislation that brought a statewide system of kindergartens and compulsory school attendance to Mississippi for the first time.
Memorial contributions can be made to the Foundation for Mississippi History. Gov. Winter was the leading force behind the opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. His goal was for every Mississippi student to visit these museums at least once. Over the last years of his life, Winter helped raise funds to endow field trips to both museums for schools with limited resources. With his help the Foundation for Mississippi History has raised half of the $4 million endowment to make this possible. Contributions in Winter’s memory can be made to the William Winter Education Fund, FMH, P.O. Box 571, Jackson, MS 39205.
A memorial service will be held once the dangers from COVID-19 abate and it is safe to gather for a service. Condolences to the Winter family may be mailed to P.O. Box 427, Jackson, MS 39205.