By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – Some Mississippi governors are remembered for their style and others for their substance. Former Gov. Bill Waller Sr. is one ex-governor of this state who rightly should be remembered for both.
With the seersucker suits and the outsized political persona, Waller was every inch a populist who rose to power by indicting the “Capitol Street Gang” in Jackson – his euphemism for the wealthy, powerful and well-connected businessmen and lawyers who Waller said had too much influence in this state.
Waller was one of the last purveyors of the old style political stump speech in Mississippi politics. Even during his last appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in 2005 when he was aged and well past his rhetorical prime, Waller could still rattle the tin on top of the Founder’s Square Pavilion and the crowds loved him there.
When Waller died this week at 85 after a long and remarkably productive life – one in which he was relevant and contributing right up to the end of his life – I could not help but think of the last long conversation I had with him and the remarkable venue in which that conversation occurred.
Back in mid-April of 2001, I was invited to moderate a panel discussion between the state’s living former governors at a convention of the Mississippi Association of Planning and Development Districts (MAPDD) on the Gulf Coast. The group invited all the former governors who were living at that time – including Waller and former Govs. Kirk Fordice, William Winter, Bill Allain, and Ray Mabus.
Waller, Fordice and Winter accepted the invitation. Allain and Mabus did not.
I shared a chartered plane flight from Jackson to the Gulf Coast with former Govs. Fordice, Waller, and Winter. During the lively conversation on the trip, each made it clear that they had not retired from relevance in Mississippi politics and that each still had the fire in the belly that brought them to power at critical junctures in the state’s history.
To be sure, the former governors put on quite a show in Biloxi at the MAPDD convention. But the real show was on the plane ride down and back.
Conservative Kirk Fordice and liberal William Winter were miles apart on the political spectrum and remained so until Fordice’s death. But on that day in 2001, their private exchanges in that small airplane were gentlemanly and animated.
While the political dichotomy of Fordice and Winter was always interesting, the diamond in the rough of that plane ride was the few minutes all of us enjoyed talking politics and public policy with Bill Waller Sr.
Underrated and under-appreciated as governor, Waller’s legacy lies on two fronts – he provided significant leadership to bring Mississippi into the modern era on race relations and he made the first significant appointments of black bureaucrats into state government. His two failed prosecutions of Byron De La Beckwith for the assassination of Medgar Evers was nothing short of heroic.
After leaving office, Waller spent the rest of his life as a hard-working attorney, erstwhile fisherman, doting grandfather and still had one of the keenest political minds in Mississippi. He would live to see his son elevated to the post of chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Waller risked his political future to prosecute Byron De La Beckwith in the 1960s. Waller would later kill the state Sovereignty Commission – the state’s old spy agency – and those transitions greatly helped this state move forward. Gov. Waller should be remembered most of all as a man of principle and courage.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.