By NEMS Daily Journal
Former Gov. William L. Waller, who died at 85 on Wednesday, served Mississippi with distinction and courage in two contexts, first as a district attorney who vigorously prosecuted civil rights leader Medgar Evers’ assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, and then as the first candidate who ran successfully for governor without race-baiting.
Waller, whose term was from 1972 to 1976, was an enabler of the “tipping point” toward fairness in race relations in the official life of the state.
Malcolm Gladwell, whose best-selling book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” that spurs sociological changes marking everyday life.
Waller’s principled positions on interracial relations, opposition to the state-sanctioned infrastructure of racial segregation, and his belief that justice is colorblind, tipped Mississippi away from the overt racism that previously characterized most statewide, legislative and local politics.
Waller, who hailed from Lafayette County, was the last native-born Northeast Mississippian elected to the governorship.
The tall, plain-spoken lawyer had run unsuccessfully in 1967, when John Bell Williams, an old-line segregationist, beat him and William F. Winter in the Democratic primary. Winter, also free of racial baggage, was elected lieutenant governor in 1971 and would win the governorship in 1979.
In many ways, Waller was the first governor to firmly turn Mississippi’s official vision to the future and away from the Civil War and Jim Crow fixation that held sway with many white residents.
His goals were what has become the mantra of every governor elected since: economic growth and better public education.
His veto stripping state funding for the infamous Sovereignty Commission, which was the official racist-watchdog agency tracking non-conforming Mississippians with the zeal of the Gestapo, was a singular blow to the status quo.
He ran against the establishment – the political forces he called the Capitol Steet gang – and defeated the high-profile Lt. Gov. Charles Sullivan, a Clarksdale attorney.
Mississippi leaders, current officeholders and retirees in both parties, heartily praised Waller’s work, his life and his impact on our state.
The most poignant praise was expressed by Charles Evers, brother of the slain Medgar Evers. Evers said he would make an exception to his personal rule against attending funerals to attend services for Waller.
Evers said it is unlikely Beckwith would have been convicted in the 1990s had Waller not fearlessly sought conviction twice in the 1960s.
Waller was a straighforward leader, a too-rare creature in today’s politics.