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Interview with William F. Winter

One of the editors of South Writ Large recently had the inimitable privilege of spending the day in Jackson, Mississippi with a man we greatly admire, Governor William Winter, whose sense of humor rivals his life’s accomplishments. Born in 1923 in Grenada, Mississippi, Governor Winter has not only witnessed a remarkable arc of history unfold during his lifetime, but he has also placed himself in the belly of the whale, participating firsthand in the major events of the twentieth century on into the twenty-first.

Among the most important of his achievements as the governor of Mississippi from 1980-1984—a state with an historically low record of educational standards and achievements, especially due to pervasive racism—was obtaining the passage of the Education Reform Act in 1982. It required an extremely dramatic special session. Among the vast improvements to education in the state, the law established public kindergarten for all schoolchildren.

Governor Winter continues to champion education and racial reconciliation into his nineties, going into work everyday at his law office. Among his numerous awards and approbations, the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi is named in his honor. What makes this so apt is that the Institute was founded in 1999 with a mission dear to his heart’s life and work: to “work in communities and classrooms, in Mississippi and beyond, to support a movement of racial equality and wholeness as a pathway to ending and transcending all division and discrimination based on difference”.

Our trip to Jackson began with a visit to Governor Winter’s downtown  law office, where a wall of photographs displays, among many other interesting snapshots of his era, him with various presidents of the United States. As he pointed out, “Those are all of the presidents that I know!” He also showed us a painting behind his desk of the elementary schoolhouse that he attended growing up, which was ten-people deep.

Our office visit was cut short out of fear that we’d be late for our lunch reservation at the Mayflower Cafe, Jackson’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1935. Walking to the cafe, you would have thought we were accompanied by Elvis Presley—never have we felt in such close proximity to a bona fide celebrity. To a person, everyone stopped to shake hands with Governor Winter and thank him for the many ways he has touched that person’s life or that of someone close to them, sometimes crossing the street to do so. This personal and community appreciation toward Governor Winter continued throughout the day, and we often paused during our lunch conversation over local catfish to welcome folks to the table who wanted to extend their gratitude to him.

Mayflower Cafe

After lunch, Governor Winter generously invited us to join him for a sneak-peek of the forthcoming Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, both opening this December. We were treated to a superb tour of both museums, whose galleries, artifacts, and content are phenomenal and not scrubbed for historical reinterpretation. They will be important spaces for those interested in our country’s complex and divisive history—especially that of the South.

During our day-long conversation, we spoke about his upbringing, his experience in World War II, his life’s special accomplishments, and the types of messages he would like to relay to younger generations. The following interview has been edited and excerpted, organized chronologically and in terms of topic, rather than following the actual flow of the conversation. We are enormously grateful for the opportunity to spend the day learning from and laughing with Governor Winter, who warned us against taking ourselves too seriously while making a difference.

You made a decision that everyone is equal. Tell me how you came to that decision, the insight that we all have common humanity.

Through my life’s association. I grew up just as the South, just as Mississippi was breaking out of its insularity. We were a state, we were a place, where you did not defy convention. You went along. Then you realized how much you were missing, unless you challenged some of those things. I think that’s been the basis for my interest in staying in a place like Mississippi, where I could enjoy the contrast that exists here that I would not find anywhere else. I look around and I think, you know, “Why in the world are you still in Mississippi?” Then you look at yourself and your friends and your associations and your experiences, and you say, “Where could I have done this anywhere else?” My friend Jim Silver who was a professor of history at Ole Miss—Jim was unconventional to say the least, great man, great historian—and he challenged the status quo and got beat up pretty good, mostly emotionally. He told me one day, he said, “I’m going on, I’m leaving Mississippi. I can’t stand it anymore.” And I said, “Where’re you going?” He said, “I’m going out west, out in Kansas, Nebraska, or somewhere where they don’t have a fight all the time.” I said, “You’ll die of boredom out there!” That’s what I found about Mississippi. Without realizing it, even though Mississippi was considered a backwater state, I’ve been in the middle of the action. Mississippi has been where the action has been. Sometimes it’s not action you’re proud of and you’d just as soon you had not gone through it. But I can’t think of another place that I’d rather have lived than in the emerging Mississippi in the so-called New South. Looking back now, I realize how dull it would have been had I lived in South Dakota.

Will you tell me about your family and your upbringing in Mississippi?

Well, not everything. I would not want to tell you everything! I grew up as a country boy on a cotton farm living with more blacks than with whites. My closest friends growing up were black kids. We would eat together, play together, fish together, go hunting together, do everything together except go to school. Strict social segregation.

Did you discuss it with your friends and others?

Well, we accepted it as a matter of fact. I thought about it, but I accepted it as a way of life. I couldn’t have known any better. Looking back on it, it was just a natural, normal relationship: they were black and I was white. We didn’t go to school together, we didn’t go to church together, we didn’t go to parties together, but we were very close friends.

How did World War II influence you?

Well, it introduced me to a larger world than I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I found myself, for the first time, in the military being associated with black soldiers, even though we were in segregated units. That’s hard to explain too. The army and military were as segregated as Mississippi was. We had totally black units, totally white units. [We] worked together, but we did not socialize together. It was a strange relationship. Even in retrospect, it’s hard to explain . . . World War II really introduced me to the twentieth century. I was probably as narrowly provincial as anybody who came out of Mississippi. You know, country boy ten miles out in the country. Never had traveled much. So, World War II really introduced me to my country and the broadening of my understanding of what it meant to be an American.

By the time I got back from World War II, having been in the Philippines, having spent a year overseas, I found that my education was just beginning. It introduced me to what it really meant to be an American. As a result, it introduced me to a political career where I was able to use the experiences out of having participated in World War II and the associations that came out of that to enable me to understand the broader responsibilities that go with being an American. So out of that came my appreciation for history, who I am as one citizen of this country, and the recognition that I had to use whatever formal education and experience to enable me to be as constructive a citizen as I could be. I think what World War II taught me was that I was more than just an individual citizen. By virtue of who I was, where I come from, experiences that I had had, called on – required me, to educate young people about what it was to be an American. That’s what my life has consisted of – of recognizing out of those associations how fortunate I have been to see firsthand the growth, the development of this country. As a result, I have been very much interested in history. . . . I don’t think any of us can ever be as good a citizen as we ought to be unless we fully understand where we’ve come from and what it means to be a part of this noble cause called America. We have to keep on working on it. That’s the thing that bothers me, is that we don’t understand that unless we put our best effort into supporting this country in a constructive way—not in a chauvinistic way, but a constructive, positive way—then we can ensure that the country is going to be preserved. I’m on a soapbox now.

Not at all. I feel like you’ve seen so much change, and positive change, in terms of the divisions that existed when you were born to today. And of course, there’s an Institute named after you that deals with racial reconciliation. How are you doing with that?

We’re doing very well. We really are. That’s become a cause with me, not separate from everything else, but as a part of my life, to make sure that we don’t slip backwards and that we continue to protect the values of this country. A lot of people get so cynical about the country. You read the paper everyday, you listen to the TV news. It’s easy to get cynical. That’s the message I would have, especially for young people: you have an obligation, an obligation you can’t run away from to use your talents and abilities and experiences to preserve the commitment that each of us as a citizen has to make our government and our system work as well as it can. I get so outdone with a lot of my contemporaries who have a callous, cynical feeling about that. I don’t apologize for that. I don’t want to be seen as the goody-goody guy who sees only standing up and waving the flag, but of really putting our best efforts into making our system work as well as it can work. That’s eliminating the areas of injustice and conflict and bias and prejudice that causes us so much struggle and pain. That’s the message I have for young people, particularly young people: that each one of us has to make it a part of our duty as an American citizen to see that this country delivers on its promise of justice and fairness and equity for everybody. We’ve gone a long way in achieving that, but we still have a long way to go. But I’m very optimistic about it. I refuse to let folks pull me down to the cynicism that so many people seem to be affected by. This is a great time to be alive, to be an American. If it’s not working as well as it ought to work, let’s do something to make it work. That’s the message for young people now: for goodness sake, don’t give up on our system. And I am encouraged by what I see in young people. I spend a lot of time talking with them. So that’s why I appreciate what y’all are doing. Really. Educating people, making them understand the duty they have.

Have you witnessed, over the course of your life, times when people’s blinders came off and they saw common humanity in people they otherwise would have been prejudiced toward?

Absolutely. I see it everyday. I see it happening everyday. That’s the place we ought to be, right there.

What do you think it takes to take blinders off?

Look in the mirror. Look at yourself. What am I doing using my life to make good things happen, to cause us to have a better country? You have to believe that. You can’t imagine it, you have to really believe that.

Is there one moment that solidified your calling [to public service]?

My parents inspired me by their own example. My mother was a teacher for 30-40 years and my father was, even though he was not in the schoolroom a lot, he was a teacher wherever he was and he was in the legislature. He was in government and he believed deeply in the importance of supporting our government in positive ways and recognizing, at the same time, recognizing that our system isn’t perfect, [it] never will be. We’re human beings and are going to make mistakes, but in the process, [we should] not overlook the responsibility that we have to improve the system that we live under. I think it’s getting better, not as good as it ought to be or can be or will be, but that’s the message I try to give young people.

What do you consider the most important, single struggle that you engaged in over your lifetime?

Improvements in race relations and in education, those two. I’ve seen and had a lot of good things happen there. There’s still a lot left to be done. Don’t let the cynics pull us down!

President Clinton tapped you to form an advisory committee that has turned into the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation based at the University of Mississippi. Please tell me a little bit about that.

Right, we have similar backgrounds, grew up in a segregated society, had to fight the segregationists, and overcome the bias and the prejudice that made life difficult for a lot of people. But, he and I, whenever we get together, we reminisce a little bit about where we’ve both come from. I think we both appreciate the special privilege we have had to live in and through the changes that affected Blacks and race relations. To think just a few years ago, I couldn’t have walked in [this café] with a black friend and sat down and had lunch. I couldn’t have done it. I would have been locked up, hauled off to jail. Now, to accept that as normal is more than I could have dreamed of growing up. That’s what makes me so thankful that I have been able to come along and see the improvements. But we still have a lot of injustice out there.

We still have a lot of healing to do.

We do. We do.

What’s your advice on how we can heal as a country and a community with these sorts of wounds and divisions?

By setting examples in our own lives, in our relationships with our fellow Americans. Not be content with the progress we’ve made, but to understand that we all have some things to do to make better things happen. I’ve been so pleased with how far we’ve come. I get outdone with people who don’t think there’s anything left to do.

Do people really think there’s nothing left to do? It’s hard for me to imagine there are people who think that.

Well, so many people, especially people who have been economically favored, really don’t appreciate the responsibility they have to make things better. A lot of folks don’t feel they have any responsibility to do anything to make it better. But it’s getting better all the time. This is a much better place to live than it was a few years ago.

The Institute is composed of an impressive group of people.

Well, they’re good folks. I’ve learned so much being associated with them. I like to be with folks that don’t have all the answers. I learn so much from people that are looking for answers themselves. When you close your mind, then I’m prepared for a very boring afternoon. Ask questions. And don’t be afraid of being embarrassed by asking questions that may be out of line or are just plain old dumb. That’s how you learn. People have been so good to me.