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write for www.natchezsun.com.
Winter’s focus is still a better Mississippi
By Charlie Mitchell
As midday neared on a cool July day in Mississippi (strange as that sounds),
a 91-year-old hopped (strange as that sounds) up the stage steps, approached
and embraced the lectern at the Neshoba County Fair.
audience of about 400 — mostly white, mostly Republican, mostly there to see
if U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran was going to speak — arose in unison and applauded
enthusiastically for the lifelong Democrat.
Yes, it was William
Winter. Yes, he could pass for 70. Yes, he delivered a stem winder. He was
interrupted by applause time and again.
“ When I think back
on what Mississippi was like when I first went to the
Legislature in 1947,” the former governor said, “I cannot comprehend how far
we have some in those 68 years.
“We had just emerged
from a terrible economic depression and the most devastating war in human
history. Less than 50 percent of the adult population had finished high
school, and a disturbingly high percent were functionally illiterate.
didn’t regard education as a priority for a lot of people. We were more
interested in preserving a Jim Crow social order than we were in investing
in the future,” he said.
It was a time when the
state would offer to pay tuition for black citizens to attend out-of-state
professional schools rather than have them enroll in Mississippi’s public law
or medical schools. Fear of integration, Winter remembered, kept lawmakers
from creating the medical school in
until 1955. Think about it. The state could afford a modern medical school.
The state had the students and the venue. The primary reason to avoid
offering a full medical degree in
for Mississippians was to keep Jim Crow in business.
three terms in the Legislature, Winter, a native of Grenada, served in other offices,
culminating with four years (1980-1984) in the Governor’s Mansion. He had
sought the top job multiple times starting in 1967, but voters feared
(there’s that word again) he might be a moderate on race.
Anyway, his speech at this year’s giant house party was upbeat, as most of
recalled visiting the same stage in 1964 when the county, state and nation
were hearing the names Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner —
killed by the KKK just down the road because they believed all Americans
should have the same rights.
remember being here on these fairgrounds that summer and feeling the
unspoken aguish of a lot of folks who were themselves victims of a system
that held all of us, black and white, in bondage,” Winter said.
Please, if nothing else, don’t pass his point lightly: Segregation crippled
white people, black people and the state we all call home.
continued: “If you asked me this morning what were the most important things
that have happened in Mississippi in my lifetime, 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.”
only there were more evidence for his optimism.
there have been remarkable advances in racial understanding; yes, the
Legislature, during Winter’s term and as recently as the 2014 session, has
enacted good bills for public education. Yet, race remains a subtext in
almost every public conversation in
and public schools are (1) treading water and (2) almost as segregated as
they were in 1970.
Still, it was good to
see such rousing appreciation from a strongly conservative gathering for the
words of a “moderate” nonagenarian who were motivated by his enthusiasm even
if they don’t accept his altar call. It went like this:
“Compared to the past, we are living in pretty good times. Let us make the
best of them. Let us make the investments that pay off later. Let us set
aside petty differences and self-serving ambitions to find common ground and
reasonable solutions to complex problems.
my book, honest compromise is an essential part of the path to success. We
owe that to those who will follow us here. Let us make sure that we do not
Sen. Cochran did appear. So did Gov. Phil Bryant. Their talks — good ones —
got the big headlines. They were, after all, more newsworthy.
have to say that applause for the Hon. William Forrest Winter, gentleman
from Grenada, seemed
much longer, much stronger.
Not bad, not bad at all.
Charlie Mitchell is a
Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or