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Charlie Mitchell: At 91, William Winter's focus is still a better Mississippi

 

Charlie Mitchell

 

OXFORD -- 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. 

 

The 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. 

 

"We 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 Jackson 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 Mississippi for Mississippians was to keep Jim Crow in business. 

 

After 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 them are. 

 

He 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. 

 

"I remember being here on these fairgrounds that summer and feeling the unspoken anguish 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. 

 

He 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." 

 

If only there were more evidence for his optimism. 

 

Yes, 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 Mississippi 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. 

 

"In 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 fail." 

 

Oh, Sen. Cochran did appear. So did Gov. Phil Bryant. Their talks -- good ones -- got the big headlines. They were, after all, more newsworthy. 

 

But I 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.

 

 

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