Former Gov. William Winter has long been one of my absolute favorite Mississippians. Not only for his contributions to this state during his term in the governor’s office (1980-84), but for his work since focused on bringing Mississippians together.
His latest contribution was a stirring speech last Thursday at the Neshoba County Fair that concluded with a standing ovation from the huge audience that had gathered.
Gov. Winter, now 91, who appeared more energetic than many of his fellow speakers, opened by explaining the changes he’s experienced since first being elected to the legislature in 1947.
“I have a hard time comprehending how far we have come in those 67 years. We had just emerged from a terrible economic depression and the most devastating war in human history. Less than 50% of our adult population had finished high school and a disturbingly high percent were functionally illiterate.
“We didn’t regard education as a priority. We were more interested in preserving a Jim Crow social order than investing in the future. Almost every public issue was viewed in those days through the prism of race.”
“We had clear cut our long leaf pine and hardwood forests. Our land on which they had stood was sold for taxes. Our hill farms were washing away. Our lakes and streams were filled with silt and pollution. Few lived in decent housing. Our road system was a mess and too many of our brightest young people couldn’t wait to move away.”
“In the last half of the last century, something happened, we began to come together as a people. When we realized our common interest was more important than the issues that divided us, we began to make real progress.”
Gov. Winter then outlined the many obstacles we overcame, such as “a terrible inferiority complex that didn’t want to be a part of the national mainstream, that was suspicious of outsiders and defiant of the federal government. It was a state looking backward and not to the future and we wondered why we were not respected nationally and lagging economically.”
He referenced the summer of 1964 as the turning point, when the three civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia.
“It may well have been right here in Neshoba County when the conscious of the good people of this county and state, caused attitudes to change. I remember being on these fairgrounds that summer and feeling the unspoken anguish of a lot of folks who themselves were victims of a system that held all of us, black and white, in bondage.”
“If you asked me this morning, what were the most important things that happened in Mississippi in my lifetime, I would unhesitatingly tell you it was the elimination of racial segregation in the 1960s and the recognition in the years since then of the absolutely vital importance of adequate education for all of our people.”
“We have a right to be proud of our progress. We’ve come farther than any other state, but we still have a long way to go because we started so far back.”
Gov. Winter is best remembered for the passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act in 1982. He spoke last week of the passage in 1997 of the Miss. Adequate Education Program calling it “a huge step forward.”
“The problem is that only twice since its passage has it been fully funded. We’ll never catch up on that basis. But rather than filing a lawsuit (referencing the legal action former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is leading), I support the Constitutional amendment that has been proposed, and hopefully will be on the ballot next year to require annual adequate funding.”
Gov. Winter offered support for setting up “charter schools with very special care so that they don’t lessen funding for all public education” and for the legislature to pursue and fund a statewide pre-k system.
“The evidence is too overwhelming as to what such an addition would bring about,” he said.
He closed with a challenge to make this state the best it can be for future generations.
“We Mississippians, as we’ve demonstrated so many times before, have the economic and intellectual resources to do anything that we think is really important and want to accomplish. We’ve done that in good times and bad. Compared to the past, we are living in pretty good times now. Let us make the best of them. Let us make the investments that will pay off later. Let us set aside petty differences and self serving ambitions to find common ground and reasonable solutions to complex problems. In my book, honest compromise is an essential part of the path to success. We owe that to those that will follow us. Let us make sure that we do not fail.”
Email Joel McNeece at firstname.lastname@example.org & follow him on Twitter @joelmcneece