In 2017, as Mississippi was celebrating the 200th anniversary of its statehood, I wrote a series of columns about the men and women who had enjoyed the greatest influence on the lives of the state’s people.
I put William Winter at the top of my list. Here is what I wrote about the “Gentleman from Grenada,” as Speaker Walter Sillers of the Mississippi House of Representatives would have said in recognizing Winter in 1947 after he was elected to the State Legislature while still a law student:
“Finally, my choice as the most important and influential Mississippian of these first 200 years: William Forrest Winter, born Feb. 21, 1923 in Grenada, a man of peace and social justice, our 58th governor, legislator, state treasurer, lieutenant governor, public education advocate and ardent historian. They came no better.”
William F. Winter died Dec. 18 in Jackson after a brief illness. He was 97.
I believed those individuals who had guided our path — those who had walked “point” in military jargon — deserved special recognition. Winter had been, as Wikipedia puts it, “… the leading soldier advancing through hostile or unsecured territory.”
Could anything better describe Winter’s journey through the minefields of Mississippi politics, government and the ever-present issue of race?
It was my opinion that Mississippi had not seen his kind before. Now, I wonder if and when we will ever see it again.
I have wondered exactly how this man from the Yalo-busha River bottoms outside Grenada had emerged from such a time and place to be so atypical in dealings with Black people in a state dominated by Jim Crow segregation policies.
Charles C. Bolton, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, gives a view of Winter’s racial moderation in a 2013 biography, “William F. Winter and the New Mississippi.”
He said experiences as a Grenada County youth and student at Ole Miss “shaped Winter’s conception of government as a place where citizen leaders came to solve their common problems.”
Later, Bolton wrote, “Winter’s work as a trainer of Black troops and service in one of the Army’s experimental integrated officer corps led him to understand that the global conflict had raised expectations for the fulfillment of rights as American citizens.”
As governor, Winter would show with passage of his renowned 1982 Education Reform Act that “a better educated citizenry would lead to economic improvements, which would enhance the lives of everyone in the state,” Bolton wrote.
Winter’s was a serious politician and historian, but he also had a lot of regular guy in him. Let Andy Mullins, a key staffer in the Winter administration and author of a book about the education act, describe him:
“He was determined, persistent, dedicated, courageous and a person of intellect and integrity. He was surely all of those except serious all the time. He could be one of the most fun-loving people I’ve ever known.
“He also had a great trove of stories … often humorous, especially about the many political and sports characters he had known.
“He was a wonderful traveling companion as well. He could remember details of sporting events and political rallies that were hilarious and true. Some of the secondhand ones could have been exaggerated for effect, but nevertheless stories which had friends howling in delight.
“His love of Mississippi was evident even talking about some of its dark past. He did not gloss over the rough spots but just told the truth.
“William Faulkner said, ‘You love despite, not because of.’ That captures (Winter’s) love of Mississippi with all its paradoxes, hypocrisies and at times crazy behavior.”
Mac Gordon is a part-time resident of McComb. He is a retired reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.