Whenever there’s a letter or card in the mail from Mississippi, it’s bound to be inspirational. And it’s bound to be from a guy you might not have heard of but should know more about.
Meet former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter, a public sector healer whose decency, goodness and vision for a better South gently motivates people to be kinder and more accepting of each other.
Winter, a Jackson lawyer who held the top political office in Mississippi from 1980 to 1984, is still known for pushing public education reform in his home state for the first time in years, including the establishment of public kindergartens. Since serving as governor, he has gained a national reputation for encouraging racial reconciliation and his unrelenting support for public education.
At age 93, Winter continues to inspire, often sending words of encouragement after meetings or encounters. In May 1995, for example, Winter sent a letter stirring me to continue to developing what became a regional think tank. He wrote, “You have laid out an intriguing and ambitious program which, if fully implemented, could transform the politics of the South in the right way. Right now we are seeing a transformation in the wrong direction.”
A trim figure drawn to charcoal suits, white shirts and maroon ties, Winter might remind you of a hardscrabble farmer. Whenever you encounter him, he exudes a curiosity about life and what you’re doing to make it better.
This curiosity was in no better display than in October 1995 in Washington, D.C., after lunch in the U.S. Senate dining room. That day, hundreds of thousands of African Americans met on the National Mall for the Million Man March. One of the largest demonstrations in history, many white leaders seemed intimidated. Not Winter. As I headed back to the office, I asked what he was going to do during the afternoon. He pointed toward the mall and said something like, “I’m going to head down here to listen.”
That’s the kind of guy he is — always probing, questioning, looking for ways to move his state and the region forward.
One of Winter’s protégés, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, told us he most admired Winter’s persistence and resilience in working for progress in Mississippi.
“Despite two defeats for governor, he wouldn’t give up and ran a third time, even when many suggested he couldn’t win,” said Mabus, who served as Mississippi’s governor from 1988 to 1992. “Governor Winter demonstrated the same commitment in pressing ahead with education reform in the 1982 special session, despite previous defeats. He never gives up. Still doesn’t.”
Ferrel Guillory, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who runs a program on public life, got to know Winter after he served as governor.
“He carved out an exemplary life-after-the-governorship role as a progressive ‘conscience of the South,’ traveling widely to inspire leaders, serving on key boards and commissions, speaking on the persistent need for closing racial and economic gaps, and urging Southerners to persist in advancing public education,” Guillory said.
“Governor Winter has demonstrated the high art of public leadership, acting with integrity and with deep human concern for his fellow citizens, regardless of their station in life. He exemplifies what it means to be an engaged citizen, combining practicality and vision. And I am honored to have him as a friend.”
So are the hundreds of others who continue to be inspired by his goodness. In May after we had breakfast in Jackson, he sent these kind words:
“We have to find the political will and concern to support more investment in public education and the cultural activities that lift us out of our suspicion of change and our preoccupation with clinging to the myths of the past. We have such a rich heritage in this region that can make for a greatly enriched quality of life for everybody if we will just listen to the best angels of our nation, instead of those base instincts that bring out our negativism and fears.”
We all have people in our lives who inspire us — parents, teachers, coaches, ministers and public figures. We need more like William Winter.