When I wrote in 2004 that William Winter’s long, distinguished career in public life “brought a nobility to the calling of politics far in excess of what it deserves,” I sincerely meant it and still do.
Amazingly, now at 90 years old, the former governor is still going at a pace fit for any man 30 years his junior.
A ton of national and Mississippi awards have been bestowed upon Winter for his devotion to public service but he has never written an autobiography to encompass his remarkable six-decade career in public life. It’s well then that historian Charles C. “Chuck” Bolton, formerly of the University of Southern Mississippi, has skillfully put Winter’s remarkable story into a highly readable biography utilizing hours of oral history and Winter’s uncanny collection of documents.
In “William F. Winter and the New Mississippi,” published by University Press, the biographer has laid out the bad as well as the good in Winter’s public life.
Few today can claim to have known Winter longer than I. We met in Grenada under rather bizarre circumstances in August, 1947. Strangely enough, I was a judge in that year’s Miss Mississippi contest held in Grenada. I was given that tough task by my boss at The Times-Picayune, George Healy, a distinguished Ole Miss alum.
William and I, both as World War II veterans, hit if off immediately, and have remained good friends. In service, Winter underwent a marked transition in his racial views while commanding black troops at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
Winter recalls because of Alabama’s segregation how he was unable to socialize off the military base with black officers in his unit. This experience, he tells Bolton, made him realize “how unreal was the world in which I had grown up, the segregated world.” Winter admits his pre-war racial attitude was one of white supremacy.
Winter was always regarded as suspect by the segregationist white Citizens Council. In 1960 he had ridden the “LBJ Special,” the campaign train used by then vice-presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson to campaign for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. All the train riders were targeted for defeat by the Citizen’s Council.
In his four years as governor (a one-term limit back then) Winter is best remembered for his role in raising the level of public education and installing free kindergartens as part of the state’s public school system, the last state to do so.
As governor, he quietly removed one of the state’s most shameful racist symbols from its prominent position in the rotunda of the Capitol. A bronze statue of the late Gov. Theodore G. Bilbo, the icon of white supremacy, had stood for some 25 years in the Capitol rotunda. Winter had the statute locked away in a room on the east end of the building.
Though he angered some Bilboites at the time, William Winter remains Mississippi’s elder statesman.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.