For years, Mississippi has wrestled with a segregated and unequal education system where kids often start behind and stay behind. The state’s former governor William Winter (1980-1984) has spent nearly seven decades in public life working to improve the quality of education in his home state.
While in office, he spearheaded efforts to pass sweeping education reforms, including a compulsory attendance law and the creation of statewide public kindergartens. The 1982 Education Reform Act is still widely considered the most significant education legislation ever passed in the state. Governor Winter has devoted most of his career since leaving office to the cause of racial reconciliation. Winter served on the advisory board for President Clinton’s initiative on race and helped establish the Institute for Racial Reconciliation that now bears his name.
The Winter Institute is a non-profit based at The University of Mississippi that works with communities in Mississippi and beyond to end discrimination based on difference.
The Hechinger Report has partnered with Rethink Mississippi, an outlet for Mississippi policy insight and analysis, which is sponsored by the Winter Institute. Jake McGraw, editor of Rethink Mississippi spoke with former governor Winter.
Q: You chose politics and public service as your life’s work. What value did you see working within the political system (to effect change)?
A: I grew up in a political family. My father was a member of the Legislature for 24 years, and my earliest memories involved political activities of one kind or another. I used to go around with him when he was campaigning for the Legislature, and came with him to Jackson when I was nine years old, when he was a member of the state Senate. [I] got to know the governor, got to know a lot off political figures, and was attracted to the process by which politics functions. I enjoyed listening to political stories. [I] enjoyed, even as a small boy, the discussion of issues. I remember as a nine-year-old boy sitting in the state Senate listening to the debate over the sales tax.
So it was almost a way of life from my earliest beginnings. As I grew older, I came to understand the role of politics in the lives of all of us. Almost every meaningful decision is based to a certain extent on political decisions. After I came back from World War II and entered law school, there was a whole generation of young veterans who wanted to see the state and South do better. Twelve of us who were at the Ole Miss Law School ran for the Legislature in 1947. Eleven of us were elected. There were eleven enrolled members of the law school including president of the Ole Miss student body who were members of the Mississippi Legislature. That was a heady experience, to come to Jackson and sit in a legislative body and be aware that you had the opportunity to make decisions that would affect the well-being of two million people.
Unfortunately, we arrived in the Legislature as the beginning of the civil rights struggle was taking place. Almost the very week I was elected to the Legislature, President Truman issued his civil rights statement calling for the elimination of segregation, in effect, in all public places and decisions.
So that put a blanket over the idealism that many of us felt coming back from the war. We realized we entering an exciting new period in American history and we wanted to take advantage of that, but we were stymied in terms of the ultimate extent of our progressivism by the specter of maintaining segregation.
I still think of politics as my father did — and instilled in me — that politics is a noble profession, that it is an activity that we all ought to be proud to be involved in, and that we ought to give our best effort.
Q: Do you think politics carries the same value for people who want to make a difference today?
A: I think the opportunity and the motivation for that is still there, and I still think politics is one of the most important areas that anyone can be involved in. Pretty much every decision that affects people, en masse and individually, stems from decisions made by elected public officials who set the policy for good or ill. So I still think of politics as my father did — and instilled in me — that politics is a noble profession, that it is an activity that we all ought to be proud to be involved in, and that we ought to give our best effort.
The stakes now are higher than they ever have been because we are living in a much more complicated world with more complex problems to deal with. It is, I think, essential to the maintenance of our form of government to have people who are competent, concerned, and dedicated to the public interest to use their talents in political activities. And I can say out of my own experience that I think the ability to lead a very satisfying, fulfilling life is probably greater in politics than anywhere else. I think that is particularly true in government at the state and local level, where you can see on a day-to-day basis the results of your work.
Q: Your legacy is largely defined by your work on two issues: race and education. If you were governor today, or going into Mississippi politics today, are those still the two issues that you would choose to focus on?
A: Yes. As much progress as we’ve made, and I think anyone objectively would say that Mississippi has made a huge amount of progress in improving the quality of education and certainly incredible amount of progress in terms of race relations. This is an entirely different society than the one that existed in this state 50 or 60 years ago. Mississippi has probably come further than any other state. Some might say that we had further go to, but at least we have confronted those issues and dealt with them, and now the recognition must be that as much as has been done, there’s so much left to do. And this may be harder than it was originally because the sharp divisions are not as visible out there as they used to be. We don’t have signs on water fountains saying “white” and “colored”, but there are still invisible divisions out there that set the races apart.
We have a huge division in terms of perspective of white folks as opposed to the perspective of black folks on how far we’ve come. We white folks by and large think we’ve come further in terms of eliminating the inequities in our society than black people think we have. It’s largely a matter of trust, a lack of understanding on the part of people in their respective races, and maybe a lack of candor in discussing these issues and these differences. From the standpoint of race, a huge amount of work needs to be done.
And education will always be an issue. The quality of education of our people is still going to leave a lot to be desired. Regardless of how far we go, we still have so much further to go [because] education, adequate education, is more important now than it ever has been because there are very few things people can do now without having a basic framework of education. When I was growing up, there would be good jobs for people who couldn’t even sign their name. But now you can’t have a satisfying, satisfactory life unless you have a good education. The key now lies, it seems to me, in doing whatever it takes to reduce that number of people who, for whatever reason, have never been able to acquire that education. The poorest schools are in the areas that are in need of the best schools. So our willingness to invest more of our resources in education I think is a political priority.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.