Mississippi’s former Gov. William Winter, who died on Dec. 18, 2020, helped transform Mississippi’s rigidly segregated public education system. He ran for office promising to focus on education and kept his promise. His signature accomplishment was a law that improved the futures of Mississippi’s children — especially Black children who had been harmed for decades by a separate and profoundly unequal education system. When he took office in 1980, Mississippi was the only state with no compulsory public education requirement, a result of Mississippi’s state legislature’s racist actions after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling sought to desegregate public schools.
Gov. Winter spent hours campaigning on the need for change, supported by many Black citizens and community coalitions led by local leaders like the indomitable Mayersville Mayor Unita Blackwell. The first two attempts to get reform through failed, but after Gov. Winter called a special legislative session just before Christmas 1982 focused only on education, the Education Reform Act of 1982 finally passed by one vote. The resulting sweeping and long overdue changes included requiring school attendance, adding funding for public schools, increasing teacher pay, and providing public kindergarten in Mississippi for the first time.
Gov. Winter’s attempts to level the educational playing field for Mississippi’s children were part of the trajectory that ultimately made him a champion of equal rights and civil rights in his state despite his segregationist roots. His experiences in the Army during World War II serving alongside two Black soldiers in his training class and then as an instructor to an all-Black regiment were among his first exposures to Black citizens as equals and peers and helped shaped his later moderate approach to civil rights as a politician. In his first run for governor in 1967 against a segregationist opponent who accused him of being too liberal, he defended himself by staunchly supporting segregation too.
As governor, he grew and began to welcome and celebrate extraordinary Black Mississippi leaders like Myrlie Evers-Williams. After his term-limited single term ended, Gov. Winter continued to promote civil rights on state and national stages. He served on the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s board for nearly fifty years and helped ensure that the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the nation’s first publicly funded civil rights museum, were built together near the state’s Capitol. President Clinton appointed Gov. Winter to the National Commission on Race and the University of Mississippi founded the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. In 2008 I served on the selection committee when he received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing education and racial reconciliation.
Among his many other honors were the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association and the National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award. He was a vocal supporter of the 2001 referendum to remove the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag which failed, but Mississippi voters chose a new flag in November 2020.
He was a champion for Mississippi’s children and all children and a longtime friend of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). He spoke at CDF national conferences and participated in the CDF Freedom Schools pilgrimage to Philadelphia, Mississippi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. He joined 300 young people CDF convened from across the country to visit the site where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in June 1964 trying to establish Freedom Schools and help local citizens register to vote. He met with community members terrorized during that time and apologized for the state of Mississippi’s complicity. He showed our young servant-leaders that personal and political transformation are possible.
After Gov. Winter died, his pastor in Jackson wrote: “The William Winter I came to know as a man of faith was as shaped by humility of spirit and gentleness of character as the politician I looked up to as a young man. Beneath his accomplishments as a politician, a public servant, a visionary for a better Mississippi, and an advocate for a more just and equitable world was a humble and hopeful faith. It was that faith that let him see a world beyond the limitations of the moment. He was a dreamer of big dreams and when our imaginations failed us, he was there to help us see through his lens of hope. … Combatting racism and working for racial reconciliation are, he estimated, some of the most important work a public servant or private citizen can do. He recognized that racism does not always announce itself in the public square. It all too often hides in the structural disparities of society. The only way to fight the structures of racism is to reform the structures that promote it.”
Edelman is founder and president emerita of Children’s Defense Fund.