By Lloyd Gray | NEMS Daily Journal
If a governor is measured by legislative achievements, Bill Waller didn’t have much success. He sought continuously, and often with vocal displeasure, to get the attention of a Legislature that largely ignored him.
But Waller’s achievements were at another level, and history will remember him as a pivotal transitional figure in Mississippi politics.
Waller, an Oxford native who died last week at 85, led the state out of an era of race-obsessed defiance of the federal government into a period in which education and economic development began to take center stage. Taking office in 1972 in the immediate aftermath of total public school integration, Waller – unlike his predecessors – realized that the battle to maintain segregation was lost and that it was time for the state to get on with constructing a new reality and image for itself.
“Re-think Mississippi” was a slogan his administration came up with that carried dual messages: No. 1, that the nation should see Mississippi was changing and reconsider its negative perceptions of the state, and No. 2, that Mississippians themselves should re-evaluate and update their own self-image.
Waller had gained stature while Hinds County district attorney in the 1960s with his vigorous prosecution of Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Two hung juries were owed more to white Mississippi’s closed ranks in those days than to any shortcomings by Waller.
This made him the “other” racial moderate in his first run for governor in 1967 behind William Winter, who eventually lost to staunch segregationist John Bell Williams. During his term, Williams waved the flag of defiance at federal efforts to integrate Mississippi schools.
Waller closed this chapter after his election in 1971. He effectively ended the notorious Mississippi Sovereignty Commission by vetoing its funding. He appointed the first few black Mississippians to state boards and commissions. And he began to pay attention to Mississippi’s vast educational needs, including championing statewide public kindergartens.
If, as Medgar Evers’ brother Charles says, the Beckwith conviction in 1994 would have been impossible without the groundwork laid 30 years earlier by Waller, so too did Winter’s successful efforts to improve public schools and establish public kindergartens benefit from the initial focus of Waller.
Waller could be a bull in a china shop as governor. He was openly derisive of the Legislature, as lawmakers were of him. Frustrated by the constitutional limits on gubernatorial power, including the prohibition on governors succeeding themselves, he challenged the Legislature to submit a succession amendment to the voters. They didn’t, but the issue remained in the public eye and was approved in 1986.
Waller tried to return to elective office, running for the Senate seat vacated by his political benefactor, Jim Eastland, in 1978, and again for governor in 1987. Like other ex-Mississippi governors who tried, he was never elected to anything again.
But the four-year term Bill Waller did serve changed the tone in Mississippi and built a bridge to a new, more enlightened era.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.