December 12, 2013 10:27:42 AM
When he was just a small boy, William F. Winter would accompany his father, a representative from Grenada County, to sessions of the Legislature. That experience led him to a lifetime of public service, including more than 40 years serving the state of Mississippi in offices ranging from state representative to treasurer, tax collector, lieutenant governor and, finally, to the governor's office, where in 1980, he became the state's 57th chief executive.
While his political career ended with a failed run for U.S. Senator in 1984, Winter still retains status as a pubic servant as a private citizen.
More than 80 years after those first visits to Capitol in Jackson, Winter has achieved a status that very few Mississippians have attained: He is a statesman. In fact, his is Mississippi's greatest living statesman.
Wednesday, Winter visited with the editorial board of The Dispatch.
At an age when most people have neither the interest nor the capacity to promote a great cause, Winter, now 90, has maintained his mental acumen and passion for public service.
These days, he is lending his considerable prestige to the creation of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which will occupy two wings in a massive new building in Jackson. Winter is on helping raise $10 million in private donations to support the museums, which are projected to cost $70-$80 million upon completion in 2017, an opening that will coincide with the state's bicentennial.
The two museums, which in typical Winter fashion, were a compromise between two groups with distinctly different objectives, represent ideals that will be Winter's legacy: He has long been a champion of education and racial reconciliation.
During his term as governor, Winter will be remembered for landmark legislation in education, the Education Reform Act of 1982, which established state-funded kindergartens. After serving on President Bill Clinton's Advisory Board on Race in 1997-98, Winter helped established at Ole Miss, his alma mater, what is now the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
The idea of racial reconciliation has always had its share of skeptics, of course. Many doubt the ability of state institutions to achieve the goal.
Those who would make that argument, however, would likely be persuaded otherwise by Winter, who remains a thoughtful, eloquent and practical voice that argues that racial reconciliation remains a critical issue for the health and prosperity of our state.
Winter believes the two museums will move us toward that vital goal through the educational opportunities they will afford this and future generations of Mississippians.
Very much the product of his times, Winter evolved from tepid segregationist to a champion of racial harmony, mainly because he had the intellectual integrity to challenge his own views and the moral courage to express those views to an often unreceptive audience. His moderate views on race may have cost him a political race or two, but ultimately, he attained something of far greater value: He became a leader and a statesman.
In his long years of public service, Winter has learned that Mississippi can only achieve its potential as one people rather than a state divided by black and white and that making that "more perfect union" is a challenge to be addressed on every front, from the privacy of the home to the public arenas of classrooms, churches, museums and halls of power.
It is a lesson that must still be taught because it must still be learned.
Mississippi is blessed indeed to have such a teacher as William F. Winter.