When asked last week what he was going to talk about at the annual Neshoba County Fair political speakings, a self-deprecating William Winter joked that “it’s nothing you haven’t heard before. You know, the same old stuff.”
The 91-year-old Winter, who served as governor from 1980 until 1984, and held a litany of state offices through his career, was invited back last week to participate in the annual political event.
Winter, who can still be reached at his Jackson law office most days, told fairgoers that he first spoke at the Fair 58 years ago and had spoken at the event a total of 26 times.
“Some of my friends have told me in pretty clear terms that is way too many,” he said. “They are probably right.” But he joked he was not going to turn down an invitation because “I don’t get invited out much anymore.”
Winter was right when he said he was going to give a speech that he had given many previous times. But it also is a speech Mississippians need to hear, and it is a talk that he is uniquely qualified to deliver. He delivers it with a grace, vision and precision that is truly remarkable and leaves the recipient of his speech feeling truly lucky to have heard it one more time.
Winter was elected to the Mississippi House in 1947 and served in a litany of state offices and lived through segregation and the fight over integration and all the baggage that came with. He is responsible for a tiny fraction of that baggage – for which he has apologized and had led an effort in his life after politics to rectify with such endeavors as the William Winter Center for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.
When Winter entered politics, he remembered that “we didn’t regard education as a priority for a lot of poor people. We were more interested in preserving a Jim Crow social order than we were in investing in the future.
“I remember how we kept voting against a four-year medical school because it would cost too much and more ominously it would lead to racial integration.”
Mississippi of the past, he said, was a state with “a terrible inferiority complex … that was suspicious of outsiders and defiant of the federal government. It was a state looking backward – not to the future.”
Winter said if he was asked what were the most important elements in that transformation, “I would unhesitatingly tell you that it was the elimination of segregation in the 1960s and the recognition in the years since then of the absolutely vital importance of adequate education for all of our people.
“I think we have a right to be proud of all of the progress that this state has made in those particular areas. We have come farther, I would argue, than any other state. But we still have a long way to go, largely, because we started so far back.”
But in his speech, Winter focused more on the future than on the past.
“Compared to the past, we are living in pretty good times,” he told the Fair crowd, which gave him a standing ovation. “Let us make the best of them. Let us make the investments that will pay off later. Let us set aside petty differences and self-serving ambitions to find common ground and reasonable solutions to complex problems.”
William Winter, the architect of the historic 1982 Education Reform Act, can take as much credit for the progress that Mississippi has made in the past 50 years as anyone. Our leaders would be well served to listen to his advice as Mississippi tries to move forward.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 946-9931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.