JFP Interview: Education Governor William Winter | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

JFP Interview: Education Governor William Winter

<b>*The JFP Unabridged Web Edition*</b>

Former Gov. William Winter, who served from 1980 until 1984, believes public schools are essential to the prosperity of Mississippians.

Former Gov. William Winter, who served from 1980 until 1984, believes public schools are essential to the prosperity of Mississippians. Photo by Trip Burns.

The Neshoba County Fair this year was like a tale of five governors on Thursday, traditionally the hottest political fire-breathing day. In a way though, it was the story of two governors—one past, one present—with two very different ideas on public education. For his part, Gov. Haley Barbour says we are wasting money, that we're funding public education more than ever (at least using GOP math), that we need to focus on inefficiences instead of using more tax money to bring the state's education up to "adequate" levels, as established in a formula by the Legislature in 1994.

But Gov. William Winter is still the education governor just as he was when he, along with faithful political guns known fondly then as "The Boys of Springs," convinced enough voters of the state of Mississippi that every child deserves a shot at a good public education. His Education Reform Act of 1982 was as radical a piece of legislation as ever passed in the U.S.—in effect, Mississippi voters finally decided to fund black school districts up to par with white ones, to start to address the educational inequities resulting from decades of slavery and then Jim Crow segregation. It was quite the feat for a former segregationist from Grenada County, a white lawyer from Ole Miss, who had learned the benefits of brotherhood, regardless of race, and the realities of prejudice—while in the Army.

In his roomy office on the third floor of the Watkins, Ludlam, Winter & Stennis building on North State last Wednesday, Gov. Winter was eager to talk. It was remarkable to be sitting with an 82-year-old former governor and current rabblerouser who is bolstered, it seems, by his retirement from political office to be able to say exactly what he thinks.

The day before he was to speak at a 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act in Selma, Ala., the education governor talked easily about race issues—both emphasizing how far we've come and not glossing how far we have yet to go. Before I even got my tape recorder on, the governor was telling me how the state is changing for the better, saying that progressive change has come "but not fully. The state is still emerging from its past," he said, as I settled in for a long chat.

What is the single most important issue facing the state of Mississippi today?

Education. It's key to everything. Our ability to compete economically is related directly to the level of our education among the people. And there's no substitute for that. We can subsidize business, but as I said at the fair, that's a very expensive way to do it. One thing we have to provide is a trained competitive work force.

At the Neshoba County Fair, you emphasized that education is an economic development issue—that without good public education, Mississippi will be competing with Mexico and China for low-paying jobs. Why is "public" education so important?

Because that's where 90 percent of our children go to school. Unless we continue to build up the quality of education in our public schools, we are not going to provide that competitive edge for the overwhelming majority of students.

At the fair, you focused on the reason to fully fund education, and Gov. Barbour said "there's more to improving education than just spending more money." He also says Mississippi is spending more on education than ever. How do you respond to that?

It depends on what you are comparing it with. I take the position that we are not spending enough because we never have spent enough. We're still spending less than only two other states per pupil. We have to remember that we are playing catch-up. We can't provide educational services at the same level as everybody else because so many other states are so far ahead of us. Until we invest more, we are not ever going to catch up. It's not just about money, but we sure can't do it without money.

Do you think the support for adequate funding of education has waned since the glory days of your education reform victory?

Not generally among the people; maybe among some politicians.

How do you respond to accusations by the current governor and others that the public schools are engaged in too much "wasteful spending"?

Just as in any activity in the public or private sector, where there are as many people involved, as different organizations, with as many administrative structures, you're obviously going to have to have some inefficiency and some waste. By and large, I think public education in Mississippi is the best bargain in America. We've demonstrated that we've been able to raise test scores and the quality of teaching and still be in 48th place in terms of capital spending. We're getting more than our money's worth; I'd be foolish to say no there is no place to save money, but to emphasize that it is inefficiency and waste that is holding us back, I think, is to beg the question.

What do you say to families who can afford to send their children to private school and, thus, don't want their tax dollars spent on public education?

I think that is a choice that every parent has the right to make and should make. I've never tried to tell anybody where they ought to send their children. Different circumstances confront different families and communities. I will say this: All of us, regardless of where our children go to school, have a huge stake in the products of the public education system, where 90 percent of the future citizens of Mississippi are going to be educated. We can't have quality of life for any of us unless we raise the quality of life for all. An overwhelming majority (of Mississippi citizens) continue to be products of the public school.

Does it ever frustrate you to have to argue for public education based on the good of all instead of individual children's right to a good public education?

That is the most important aspect of it. I regard it as more important than the economic aspects. From the standpoint of providing a real rationale that moves people, there is that huge economic factor. The kind of amenities (people want) and strong communities all depend on having a well-educated work force. The capacity to understand the basis for making political decisions. Another element in education that goes unnoticed is that with the kind of political system we have, the success of that system is dependent on the judgment and the ability to understand public issues by the people. Unless we have an educated citizenry capable of making wise, public decisions, we will make a lot of blunders in terms of public policy.

Did all your children attend public school?

(My children) were bussed all over Jackson, to schools we never heard of before. Finally, our youngest daughter, when she was in the 7th or 8th grade, wound up in a school (Bailey) where she was one of three or four white girls in the whole school. Discipline had broken down; academic accomplishment had gone backward. The attitude on the part of the administration from the old school was that he knew integration wasn't going to work. He was almost proving it wasn't going to work. At that point, our youngest daughter went to St. Andrews. I will say this: Some of the best teachers she had were the year she was at Powell.

What do you say to parents who believe their children simply cannot get as good an education in a public school as at a school like St. Andrews?

That they're mistaken. They don't know what's going on in a lot of these public schools. I was on the (Greater) Jackson Foundation Board several years back, and we found that some of the best teaching anywhere to be found was right here in public schools in Jackson. I don't think that is fully appreciated by a lot of people.

Back in the '70s, there was a breakdown in some of the (JPS) schools in their transition. I think academic performance did suffer in several of the schools. Since that time, most of the schools in Jackson are built back now to where almost all of them are capable of providing a good education. You always have a few weak schools, whether private or public. Good schools are dependent on dedication and competence of people involved. Now education in the state of Mississippi and Jackson is better than it ever has been.

In his book "My Mississippi," Willie Morris wrote that the reason many white Mississippians do not want to fund public education is because they believe that it will help blacks more. How strong a role does race play today in this debate?

Not as much as it used to. It was certainly a factor in the '70s. Some districts tried, in effect, to abolish public education. I think that attitude is greatly diminished. We still find examples of it. We ran into it with (the) kindergartens (debate). Race was the unstated basis for wanting to close kindergartens. We've gone way past that now.

After spending so long in state politics, how do you recommend that today's elected officials appeal to voters of all races, to convince them that they share the same interests?

When I was on President Clinton's advisory board on race, we went all over country and talked to people of every conceivable background. Everywhere we went, people agreed on basic things they were interested in: They wanted their children to get adequate education; a fair shot at a good job to sustain them and family; a decent house on safe street; to be treated with dignity and respect. Why can't we as a country and state come together politically, and as a party, to promote policies to assure accomplishment of those common aspirations. If we do that, visions based on race would disappear. In this rich country of ours, these are all achievable objectives if we would create priorities to enable us to move toward that. That may be wholly idealistic.

What is your advice to young people who might be interested in state politics?

Go for it, but understand why you're doing it. I see a lot of people interested in politics without a faint idea of what to want to do. You must believe in something and be willing to work harder than anything in non-political life. There is nothing easy about politics, but the rewards and fulfillment to be found in politics are better than with anything else that anybody could do.

What would you say to progressive thinkers such as yourself who don't think there is a place for them in Mississippi?

There is less reason to leave now than when I came along. Jim Silver had it right: It was a closed society. Not only would you be politically defeated (for progressive ideas), but socially ostracized for saying things the wrong way. We have a much more open society than we did then. The opportunity to express divergent points of view is just as great here as anywhere else. Sometimes (progressives) get intimidated by letting one point of view get expressed to the exclusion of other ideas and think, 'Nobody but me thinks that way.' But you can find a lot of company out there. Go ahead and say things as frankly and civilly as you can and hope you are reasonable enough to have folks support you. I've found that a lot of people will still vote for you even if you don't agree with them, as long as they think you are honest.

What is the biggest change you've observed in the state over your lifetime?

Attitudes on race. As I said at the Fair, I have seen two transforming developments in the state in my lifetime: The elimination of Jim Crow, state-sponsored segregation … and the attitudes about education and the universality of the need to have educated citizenry.

There has been truly remarkable change in 40 years, hasn't there? I like to say that, too often, Mississippians don't even get the chance to be proud of how far we've come.

That's why it's so important that schools teach more recent history, civil rights history, history of race relations. Forty, 50 years ago, Mississippi was a totally different state than the one we know now. And the politics in the state, even though we face some of the same issues, the atmosphere is so much different.

How important is it to prosecute old race murders like those of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, and now Henry Dee, Charles Moore and Wharlest Jackson down South?

I think it is one of most important developments we've seen in this state. I don't think the average Mississippian understands just how important that (Killen conviction) was in terms of lifting that shadow that has been over the state for a long time. It has a tremendous redemptive value within the state, too. Hopefully, it will form the basis for further efforts to provide justice in some of those old cases. Remember, it would have been worth one's life to go to a law enforcement officer at one time and suggest you want to prosecute these people.

Some civil rights veterans complained that Gov. Haley Barbour was allowed to speak at the Neshoba commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the murders due to his record on race issues and use of race rhetoric in campaigns. Some even hold his visit against the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. How do you respond?

I thought it was a big plus that the governor indicated he wanted to be there and to speak. At the time, I thought it was a huge step forward for the governor of Mississippi to make the statements that he made. I don't know what his motivation was other than the desire to be a participant in that very historic day… I thought it was a statement of the success of the movement that the governor would indicate he really wanted to be there. I think it would certainly have been inappropriate to have said no.

How have you changed the most since you first entered politics in the state?

I wish I knew as much when I entered politics as I think I know now. I would have been a much better governor. I have learned the same lessons every other Mississippian has learned. We are all products of our environment, the times in which we live. I grew up in segregated Mississippi as a segregationist. That was all I knew. My life experiences starting fairly early demonstrated to me that that was not the right way of life. When I got to the Army at Fort McClelland, the officers were all white, the infantry an all-black regiment. Shortly after I got there, the Army integrated the officer corps. I found myself serving in a totally integrated situation, working closely, sharing the same facilities, eating together, socializing together. On the weekend, we would get on a public bus going to Anniston, and our black officer friends had to go to the back of the bus. In town we couldn't go to movies together, or eat a hamburger together. I knew it would change but didn't know how long it would take. Early on, I had an understanding that we were living in an indefensible social situation of racial segregation. I have grown since then in terms of understanding better what our continuing responsibilities are to break down whatever remaining barriers exist. And there are still a lot of barriers out there. What I've learned is, you're never through learning. Keep on growing, keep on accepting change. People I feel the sorriest for are those who refuse to change, open themselves up to new ideas. The worst thing we can do to young people is to close their minds to new ways of doing things.

What is your greatest personal accomplishment?

This may sound trite, but I think raising the kind of family I have. To have been able to have the wife I have, the three daughters I have, to have the relationships I've had with them, the richness of life I've enjoyed with them. That transcends anything I may have done otherwise.

How did you meet your wife, Elise?

I was rooming with her brother at Ole Miss. We went off to war in 1943. Three years later, back at Ole Miss, we roomed together again. This time, his little sister was at Ole Miss. I started going to dinner with them, one thing led to another, and four years later we were married. We've been married almost 55 years.

What is your biggest disappointment?

The answer is obvious. My biggest disappointment was not being elected governor in 1967. I put everything I had into it. I went in a big underdog, not given much of a chance. When led in the first primary over John Bell Williams and then didn't get elected, that was a biggest disappointment. (Gov. Winter got up, reached into a drawer and handed me a sheet of paper.) This was the kind of campaign it was. (The flyer showed a picture of Winter speaking to a group with several black women in the front row. It read in part: "Awake White Mississippi: Are these front row sitters going to determine the destiny of Mississippi … William Winter's election will insure negro domination of Mississippi elections for generations to come.")

That sounds a lot like the strategy (Former Gov. Kirk) Fordice used on Dick Molpus.


Do you think it's getting harder for Republicans to use the southern strategy of race coding?

It's obviously still used, but it has to be done much more subtly. There are subtleties that still do apply. We have to educate some young people (about the code words). That's the problem; they don't realize it's an issue. They don't realize the code words. "Lazy welfare mothers," "secular humanistic schools," (Confederate) flag rhetoric. That's one that's always good, I think.

What happens now with the state flag issue?

At the time the flag issue developed, it was pretty much on the front burner. It was a flashpoint in the Legislature. … I went into that effort feeling that it was a reasonable thing to do, realizing at the same time that there were very strong feelings for a lot of people that we shouldn't be changing the flag. I was disappointed in the result, I wish we'd gone ahead and resolved the issue by making the whole flag a museum piece. I'm an old Confederate; my grandfather was in the Confederate army, and I knew my grandfather. I have a great appreciation for all of those values, for bravery. But the old flag had been desecrated and captured by these hate groups, it had become a symbol for them, affecting the image of the state of Mississippi. I still feel that way. Now with the people of Mississippi having spoken as strongly as they did, with a 2 to 1 vote, to reestablish the old flag, I think the issue has been taken off the table. There's a recognition that there are a lot of other things we need to spend energy on, not to fight old battles that I frankly don't see any sense for right now. I think we have effectively taken it off the table.

Tell us something about yourself that few people know about you.

Some it won't do to tell. (Laughs.) I have two or three passions that I feel strongly about: one, obviously, is education, one race reconciliation, one historic preservation, an appreciation for our history. My leisure is frequently wrapped up in pursuit of these passions. I get as much enjoyment out of pursuing some of those causes as a lot of people do out of hunting and fishing. I hope I don't take myself too seriously.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell JFP readers?

Just to remind them of some of the things Jack Reed and I were saying earlier this year about how important it is that we not lose any of the momentum in terms of progress in education. It is imperative that we fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. If we don't do that, we will continue to be just muddling through. We will be average, but we're not going to be great. We may not even be average.

Previous Comments

When I was in second grade back in 1982, Gov. Winter was the Mississippi governor that I learned about in social studies class. I wasn't sure what it was, but there was something about his picture that made that little seven-year-old feel that everything was right with the world. Boy, I miss that feeling....
Wow. Good stuff here.
Tom Head
Excellent...just plain excellent. www.magnoliapolitics.blogspot.com
As soon as I finished reading this article I emailed the full text version to myself so I'd be sure to always have a copy. Donna, thanks for a tremendous interview with a very remarkable man. I'll be emailing this to numerous friends in the near future. Could you meet a finer man that Governor Winter? It would be a hard task and probably downright impossible. Governor Winter served at a time when Mississippi was evolving from the Old South into the New South. Even the seemingly minuscule changes brought about by his administration were in reality monumental changes. It's like a long freight train reversing directions--it takes a lot of energy to bring the initial momentum to a halt and then to start the train moving in the opposite direction. Governor Winter is a man who was tremendously instrumental in reversing the momentum in Mississippi. Thank you Governor for the courage, presistence, dedication, and service that you have given this state during your many years--I can tell you that I would vote for you over anyone that I've voted for in any election over the last 20 years.
This is the greatest governor in MS History. He admits when he was wrong - preserves history (good or bad- as it was) - still works to improve state for everyone. Thank you Governor Winter.

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