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Birney Imes: William Winter is in the building

 

 

"William went that way, he's looking at pictures." 

 

Trey Porter of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History is talking. It's Wednesday afternoon and he and William Winter have driven up from Jackson to talk about two museums under construction in the capital, a state history museum and a civil rights museum.  

 

We have an array of local history on display throughout the building and the former governor is having a look. 

 

"I knew your grandfather." Winter has returned to the front office after his sightseeing tour of The Dispatch hallways. "I met him when I was traveling with John Stennis. I knew your father much better, though." 

 

My grandfather died in 1948, 65 years ago. Winter is 90, a remarkably vigorous 90. 

 

After serving in the Legislature three terms, the Grenada native served as state tax collector, treasurer, lieutenant governor and governor. 

 

"Ben Owen and I were law school classmates," Winter continued, opening a treasure chest of conversational possibilities. "Did you know Ben?" 

 

We're walking up the stairs to a space above The Dispatch we call the studio where we conduct interviews. Along for the visit are Dispatch managing editor Slim Smith and reporter Nathan Gregory. We're all in awe. 

 

In a world with little room for statesmen, where so much political discourse is little more than rancorous partisanship, William Winter is an anomaly. Courteous, courtly and with a Southern accent that would thrill the most ham-handed of Hollywood directors, Winter exudes an aura of goodness. In the 30 years since he last held elective office, he has tirelessly campaigned for racial understanding and improved educational standards for the state's culturally deprived children.  

 

A World War II veteran, Winter had an easy go of it gaining election to the Legislature. Then as state office-seeker during a time when moderation was a dead-end street, he endured two unsuccessful runs for governor -- against John Bell Williams and Cliff Finch -- before defeating Meridian Volkswagen dealer Gil Carmichael in 1979. The lasting achievement of his governorship was the Mississippi Education Reform Act, which established public kindergartens. 

 

The museums, for which Winter is trying to raise private funds to supplement the state's $40 million commitment, are expected to cost $80-90 million. The project will address several of the former governor's passions: history (he's been a trustee for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for half a century), education and the state's racial divide. 

 

On the latter subject, Winter has plenty to say. 

 

"I hope I'm viewed as an advocate of racial reconciliation. We have to have more emphasis on that. Thirty, almost 40 percent of the population is black. Unless they do well, the state is not going to do well." 

 

Winter says trust is still an obstacle to racial understanding. 

 

"There's still a basic lack of trust out there between races," he said. "We still don't see issues through the same eyes. It's my observation that white folks think we have come a lot further toward racial reconciliation than black folks have."  

 

The museums are evidence of progress, he says. 

 

"Arguably what was the most segregated state in the nation is the only state to invest state funds for a civil rights museum," he said. 

 

"I think these two museums are going to bring a deluge of visitors to the state," he said. "I think you're going to have a huge economic benefit from bringing international visitors here." 

 

"How do you maintain your sense of optimism?" I asked. 

 

Winter leaned forward over the table, projecting a gentle intensity. 

 

"This isn't just Chamber of Commerce talk," he says, "but no state in the country has come further than Mississippi in terms of race relations or economic development. We have come a remarkable distance. We've gotten over that inferiority complex we had. We have come to appreciate our real wealth, our human resources. We have some of the hardest working people I've ever seen, black and white." 

 

Afterwards as we walk back downstairs I ask Winter if he would mind if we had our picture taken together. My father's office used to be cluttered with photographs of him with various dignitaries. The idea to do likewise had never occurred to me before now. 

 

"I'd be honored," Winter said. 

 

 

 

 

 

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