Volume 12 Number 1
Racial Equality,mississippi-Style
01 February 1999

William Winter, one of the architects of Clinton's new initiative on race, grew up on a farm on the edge of the Mississippi Delta. What turned him into a reformer? He talks to Robert Webb.

In the Mississippi where William Winter grew up, racial segregation was rigid and racial disparities deeply ingrained. Yet, as a former governor of the state, Winter has been perhaps the main catalyst of what may become the greatest legacy of the Clinton administration: an intensified approach to binding up the interracial wounds of the United States.

Winter, who was Governor of Mississippi in 1980-84, brought a wealth of experience to his work on the national Racial Advisory Board. Equally important, he brought a vision of the nation's human and cultural diversity as its strength and glory. The board's final report, issued in September, focussed on the need for improvements in public education and called for a permanent presidential commission to help bridge racial, cultural and ethnic divides.

Clinton's and Winter's friendship dates back to the days when they were fellow governors of Southern states. His greatest achievement as governor, the 1982 Mississippi Education Reform Act, provided a model for Clinton's Arkansas and other Southern states. Michael McQuillan, assistant for racial and ethnic affairs for Howard Golden, president of New York City's borough of Brooklyn, understands that it was 'thanks to Winter' that Clinton undertook his recent racial initiative. 'He urged Clinton that if he was going to do it, now was the time.'

Mississippi, which had the largest proportion of blacks in the US, was one of the last to hold out against the desegregation triggered by the US Supreme Court's decision against racially separate schools in 1954. Schools and restrooms were racially separated; hotels and restaurants barred blacks; seating for blacks and whites in movie houses and on buses was segregated. Even religious services were mostly separate. Inequities flourished across the spectrum of life, especially in employment. Blacks dared not try to run for public office; few even tried to vote. 'Justice' could be brutal for those who did.

The system had few white detractors. 'Young people didn't question it,' Winter told me--a fact I knew well having also grown up as a white in Mississippi. Yet, curiously, many young whites and blacks did mix. 'As a young person I was playing, hunting and fishing with young blacks, who were some of my closest friends and playmates,' said Winter, who was reared on a farm on the edge of the cotton-rich Mississippi Delta area of Grenada.

When he started school, Winter thought it curious that he had to go one way, his black friends another. 'There didn't seem to be much interest (by the authorities) in their education,' he told me. 'They didn't see that education was necessary for many of these young black people who would be chopping cotton.'

Actually, Winter's first schooling--at age five--was in a barn, taught by his mother, who didn't think the teacher in the local public school was adequate. Next year he joined the one-room six-grade public school, still with his mother as teacher. Of the school's 10 students, Winter was the only one to finish high school. He went on to receive his bachelor and law degrees from the University of Mississippi, long a spawning grounds for many of the state's politicians.

His mother was clearly a major force in the passion for education that has marked Winter throughout his career as state legislator, state treasurer, lieutenant-governor, governor and later as a short-term professor at Millsaps College and the University of Mississippi School of Law.

That passion was also seen in the Racial Advisory Board's call for massive school construction, particularly in urban areas, and its assertion that race relations would improve with better schooling for minorities and more awareness by all Americans of the need for racial harmony. It also found continuing racial discrimination in housing, recommended stricter enforcement of civil rights laws and called for improved data on racial and ethnic discrimination and stronger laws against hate crimes.

Winter says he supported all the board's recommendations. 'There will always be people who have problems with people from other cultures,' he says. 'But we must do more than we have done so far to create more of a united society, where people respect each other. Racial reconciliation will not occur unless we work at it.

'Most white people don't really understand the advantages they have from white privilege,' Winter goes on. He is keen to ensure that the doors to higher education remain open as wide as possible to non-whites and that opportunities should be based on a 'totally equitable appraisal of all people'. 'Economic and educational strategies should not increase the chasm between whites and people of other races.'

It was Winter's military service in World War II which led him to shed his passive acceptance of the separatist traditions of the post-Civil War South. His first assignment out of Officer Candidate School was to the two all-black infantry regiments at Fort McClellan in Alabama. 'The army desegregated the officer corps so whites were forced to serve with black officers,' he recalls. 'We worked very well together. But when we got to (nearby) Anniston, Alabama, we couldn't eat together or see movies together. That seemed an unnatural situation.' His parents had brought him up to treat everyone with respect--'whether black or not'--and there was a religious angle too. 'We were taught in Sunday School that we should treat our neighbours with love.'

Winter left the army questioning the racial traditions with which he had grown up. Through the late 1940s, he recalls, the South battled 'old ghosts of the past'. When, in 1954, the Supreme Court made its school decision, 'we fell victim to hysteria'. As a 'moderate' on racial issues, Winter lost his first race for governor in 1967 and his second one in 1975. But by 1979, he recalls, 'the old racist fever was going down. The South was making economic and educational strides, largely as result of the elimination of Jim Crow (the term for segregation).'

Schools were desegregated, employment opportunities for blacks had increased, blacks were voting and many were being elected to office. With many blacks voting for him, Winter won his third campaign for governor in 1979 and took office in 1980.

Unsurprisingly, Winter's fight for school reforms became the centrepiece of his administration. In the 1960s white parents had banded together to establish private academies so as to escape desegregated schooling. Mississippi's public school system was one of the nation's most deficient. It was the only state without compulsory kindergartens. Winter set out to change that, while pushing other reforms.

It wasn't easy. The Mississippi legislature resisted change. Winter's efforts to finance his reforms by raising the oil and gas severance tax ran into a thick wall of opposition from the petroleum industry. He tried repeatedly and in vain, utilizing media, teacher organizations and other key interests, to get the legislature to act. His wife, Elise, made speeches across the state for school reform.

Finally his strategy paid off. He called a special legislative session in December, 1982--over the protests of powerful legislative leaders. This enacted his reforms, along with the largest tax increase in the state's history--an estimated $110 million--to finance them. Mississippi's giant educational stride was hailed by the national media and the state's major morning newspaper, Jackson's Clarion-Ledger, won the Pulitzer Prize for its role in exploring school needs and promoting the reforms.

Both the tax rise--which did not affect oil and gas--and the reforms themselves were a triumph for the philosophy of compromise which Winter had long preached. As early as 1962, in a speech at Centre College in Kentucky, he said: 'In a society as diverse as the American society of today, it is manifestly out of the question for our government to operate except on the basis of recognition of different and even diametrically opposing viewpoints and of a willingness to accommodate those differences.'

Today Mississippi has the highest number of black public officials of any state. Forty-two of the 174 members of the state's two-house legislature are black. The capital, Jackson, has a black mayor, Harvey Johnson, and four out of its seven council members are black.

One sign of the state's transformation since 1954 is the fact that the exodus of blacks from Mississippi has ceased. Twenty-five of Mississippi's 82 counties have majority-black populations today and blacks make up 36 per cent of the state's population as a whole.

There is a story of a white woman in Jackson who always said that if a black family moved in next door she would move. When, eventually, one did, they became such strong friends that they wound up trading house keys. Winter says there are such stories 'all over Jackson'. He points proudly to the 'highly integrated', middle-class residential area near the University of Mississippi Medical Center, known as the Fondren Renaissance, on whose board he sits. The 3,000 to 5,000 people living there initiate their own housing projects.

Columnist Bill Minor, who has covered Mississippi for a half-century, sees many changes in Jackson. He cites the First Baptist Church of Jackson, which used to be all white. Today it is reaching out to disadvantaged black people, 'putting sweat equity to rehabilitate rundown housing and get rid of crack (cocaine) houses. They're also working on an apartment building for low-income blacks.'

Clinton's choice of Winter for the advisory board was understandable, says Minor. 'Clinton knows that in bringing the races together we (Mississippi) are a laboratory for some of the most interesting experiments in race relations.'

Those experiments, Winter knows, could have far-reaching implications. 'The United States cannot let itself be balkanized with its increasing diversity,' he says. 'We should be using diversity's strength.' He is convinced that if the US can do this, it could be a model for the rest of the world.
Robert Webb