January 17, 2012 12:30:00 PM
Seconds into William F. Winter's speech Monday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity Breakfast, the former governor asked the hundreds in attendance an obvious but sometimes obscure question.
"We're celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., (but) why is that important to us?" Winter asked. "Why is this important to us white folks, as well as black folks?"
Winter, the keynote speaker for the 18th edition of the breakfast, reminded the crowd gathered in the Mississippi State University Colvard Student Union ballroom that King's efforts for equality helped liberate people of every race, sex and creed.
Winter shared a story of a luncheon hosted at the governor's mansion, when he met Myrlie Evers, then widow of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers.
"I said to her, 'We white folks owe as much to your husband as black folks do. He freed us,'" Winter said. "We were all prisoners of the system. We were not able to move freely or speak freely or do a lot of things we'd like to have done, because of an oppressive society and fanatical segregation."
Winter, Mississippi's governor from 1980-84, helped establish the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. Inspired by the work of King, who was assassinated in 1968, Winter dedicated much of his service to education reform and equality.
"All of us, black and white alike, owe Dr. King a great debt of gratitude for helping lift that cloud of segregation that kept us all behind," he said.
For more than a year, Winter served on former President Bill Clinton's advisory committee on race relations. He visited 26 states and spoke with people from various racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds to compile surveys.
The common thread between all people was to "have a good life," Winter said.
To Winter, the lack of trust between blacks and whites is still holding minorities back from obtaining better education for their children and a job to sustain their families.
And despite the world "turning over many times" since the civil rights era, Winter said the lack of trust is still an underlying issue in race relations.
"Aren't those reasonable aspirations?" Winter offered. "When we invest in each other, all of those superficial problems will fade away. What we look like will not make a difference. We'll finally achieve what the American dream is all about.
"Let us come together and make certain we do not cheat ourselves."
King's birthday became a federal holiday in 1986. The former minister and scholar received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 after the "March on Washington," where he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. King's nonviolent methods of protest influenced the Montgomery Bus Boycott and restaurant sit-ins during the 1950s and '60s.
Before delving into MSU's diversity statistics, MSU President Mark Keenum delivered a famous King quote: "People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other."
Keenum referenced King's quote of "intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education," to explain the value of diversity at MSU.
Keenum said 29 percent of the 2011-12 enrollment is represented by minority groups from around the world. More than 4,200 students -- 21 percent of the student body -- are black. Additionally, more than 26 percent of incoming freshmen in August were black.
"MSU enrolls more African-Americans than any other Southeastern Conference school and more than any other historically white, land-grant institution in the nation," Keenum said. "This is a tribute to our state and our community."
Winter helped pass the Mississippi Education Reform Act, which, among other things, helped start kindergarten classes in public schools.
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman called Winter a hero for making it possible for him to attend kindergarten class in 1986 in a leaky basement at Overstreet Elementary School in Starkville.
"What I didn't know then (was), it was because of tireless, dogged efforts of Dr. Winter that me and my classmates had the opportunity to go to kindergarten," Wiseman said. "He was a tireless advocate, whether popular or not, in trying to move the state forward."
Three Starkville students -- one from Starkville Christian School and two from Starkville High -- were awarded cash prizes for essays written about King's legacy of social justice and racial reconciliation.
Starkville High junior Leah Gibson earned first place for "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: The Legacy Continues." Starkville High senior Elsie Madison earned second place. Starkville Christian School senior Ryan Lawrence placed third.
MSU's Black Voices Choir closed the ceremony with three hymns, including "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
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