One of my heroes in life is Gov. William Winter. He was a close friend of my father. It was an honor to be presiding over the Rotary Club of North Jackson when he came to speak.
All his words bear repeating, I include some of them in this column.
When he became interested in politics:
“I was 9 years old when my father took me in to meet his old friend Gov. Mike Conner, a great governor of Mississippi. They served in the Legislature together. He came out and shook hands with me. He picked me up and set me down in his chair. My feet, of course, were a foot off the floor. He said to my father, and I’ll always remember this, ‘Look at that boy. That chair just fits him, dudn’t it.’ And I took him seriously. I really did. I thought, ‘You know, I’d like to be a politician.’ ”
On politics as a profession:
“My father thought of politics as a noble profession. He really believed that and tried to practice that. And I have always regarded politics as a noble profession. It has been rendered less than noble by some who practice it. But what human activity does not involve some of those for whom we do not have great respect. Politics is the process by which we live with each other in a hopefully fairly successful and orderly way. Politicians make decisions that affect almost every aspect of our lives . . . I think one of the worst things that has happened in our society has been the diminution of our attitude toward politics.”
On the role of the electorate:
“All of us have a responsibility to make serious decisions. The election of people to public office is not always regarded as responsibly and as seriously as it should be. And so we wake up one day and things are not going as well as we would like to see them go in the capitols, city halls and courthouses. It’s because we’ve let folks into office who shouldn’t be in office.”
On the positive changes in Mississippi:
“The most important change that I have seen personally in my lifetime has been the elimination of Jim Crow, the elimination of legal segregation. We have begun to emerge as a state since we put behind us that shameful past of slavery and segregation, and yet we still have a long ways to go in regard to maintaining a society, creating a society, sustaining a society where we all have respect for each other regardless of where we come from or what we look like. All of us have to work at that. It’s a matter of building trust. We have not built up enough trust between the races but we have come a long way.”
A memorable recollection of past ways:
“When I first went into the Legislature in 1948, it snowed up in north Mississippi and my roommate and I said, ‘Well, we can’t go home, so let’s go down to south Mississippi where it hadn’t snowed.’ And so we drove down to Natchez and as we drove down Highway 61 we saw a sign that said Alcorn A&M College. I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve never been on that campus. Black school, black four-year college. Let’s drive over and see what it looks like.’
“So we drove over there and asked to see the president. We were members of the Legislature. He escorted us into his office. We had a wonderful conversation. As we were getting ready to go, he said, ‘Gentlemen, we don’t see many members of the Legislature come down here on this campus. But when you get back to Jackson, please do me a favor. You all are expecting me to provide leadership to these black kids down here, but when I go into the courthouse to register to vote, they tell me that I, a holder of a Ph.D. degree from Indiana University, president of this college, that I’m not qualified to vote. Tell your colleagues, how can they expect me to provide the kind of leadership those young people are looking for when they look at me and say, ‘Well you’re not even able to vote.’ We need to get that behind us and have everybody treated the same way.’
“We still have that charge. The elimination of Jim Crow and maintenance of good race relations is still the thing at the top of the scale as far as our emergence as a truly great society.”
“When I went to the Legislature in 1948, half the people in this state were functionally illiterate. I’m talking about black and white. But they could get by because you didn’t have to know how to read or write to pick cotton or cut down trees or work at some of those minimum wage places. We do not have a sustaining social force in this state that is necessary if we are going to live in a competitive world in this century. We are still down there in about 47th place. If there is one thing that I would recommend that would be more important than anything else in breaking that cycle of dropouts and of poor results in the schools, it would be the creation of a statewide well-maintained system of pre-K education. By the time kids are 4 years old, many of them coming out of culturally deprived households, already are stunted socially and intellectually. They never catch up so they drop out. We are the only state in the union that doesn’t have some kind of sustaining pre-K education. Let’s find some way.”
“Some of you remember the slogan ‘75 by 75.’ It meant that by 1975, we were going to get up to 75 percent of the national per capita income. This is 2016 and we’re still not there. We have a long way to go and the only way we’re going to get there is through education. We can’t let up. We say we can’t afford it but we sure can’t afford ignorance either.”
On the state flag:
“We are still the victims of stereotypes that label us as being committed to the past rather than to the future. We need to eliminate those symbols that when people look at them they think, ‘Now here’s a state still fighting the Civil War.’ You and I know that is not the case, but that is the impression too many people have. That Mississippi is still stuck in the past. One thing I think would dramatically change that would be the changing of the state flag. That’s not any disrespect to my Confederate grandfather but those days are for the museum.”
William Winter’s words still ring true. It’s unfortunate Mississippi’s Democratic Party doesn’t have more leaders of Gov. Winter’s caliber. Competition is good. We need a two-party state, not a political monopoly. Let’s hope Gov. Winter’s leadership and character can inspire a new generation of leaders for our state’s Democratic Party.