Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, a champion of public education and racial harmony, dies at 97

Justin Vicory, Mississippi Clarion Ledger

JACKSON, Miss. – Former Mississippi Gov, William Winter, a crusader for public education and racial harmony, has died. He was 97.

Winter died Friday night at his home in Jackson.

Winter served as governor from 1980 to 1984, and in 1982 ushered the passage of the Education Reform Act, the state's first comprehensive education overhaul.

Asked about his legacy by the Clarion-Ledger, Winter said: "In general terms, I have tried to use the opportunities I have had to make this a better place than when I came along. We are all in this together."

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For more than 50 years, Winter served as a member of the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History’s board of trustees, and he was instrumental in the founding of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

For these efforts, he received a special Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement from the John F. Kenney Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and a Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. He was appointed as a member of then-President Bill Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race in 1997 to 1998.

Former and current legislators responded to the news on social media.

Former governor and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus called Winter the best governor Mississippi has ever had.

"A beacon for equality, inclusion, ethics and education has died. Mississippi and the USA so much better because of his life and service," Mabus said on Twitter.

Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted Winters will be missed by the people of Mississippi who loved him back.

"He truly loved this state and his country," Reeves said. "And the people of Mississippi loved him back. He will be missed by all of us."

"Mississippi has lost a giant, and my family has lost a friend and neighbor," Sen. Roger Wicker said of the news. "Another courageous member of the greatest generation joins the great cloud of witnesses."

Winter was born in Grenada, Mississippi on Feb. 21, 1923. The son of teachers, his signature and comprehensive education bill included pay raises for teachers and the hiring of teaching assistants and truant officers, the creation of publicly-funded kindergartens and improved reading programs for elementary schools.

A statewide testing program was implemented and the legislation addressed several other educational reforms, such as changes to teacher certification and professional development requirements, as well as accreditation programs, school district financing and qualifications for school board members.

The legislation was widely seen as ahead of its time and as one of the most progressive and comprehensive pieces of education legislation that had been passed in the country at the time.

During his lengthy tenure at the department of archives and history, Winter oversaw the opening of the Eudora Welty House, the restoration of the Old Capitol and the construction of a state-of-art archives building that state legislators named for him.

His greatest legacy, according to president of the Board of Trustees, Reuben V. Anderson, was helping to convince state leaders of the need to build the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Winter was instrumental in securing public and private funds for the project, said Anderson.

"These museums will challenge all of us to have a better understanding of where we have come from, and then inspire us to work harder to find our common ideals and goals," Winter said at the landmark groundbreaking ceremony in December of 2017.

"We will find that we have much more in common than what might appear to divide us," he said.

Winter was also an early and longtime advocate of changing Mississippi’s state flag to rid it of the Confederate battle emblem. He helped to lead an effort to change the flag through a statewide referendum in 2001. Although unsuccessful, the effort would lead to renewed focus on changing the flag which was accomplished in 2020.

“I hope this may spark further action to meet the compelling social and economic needs of our state," Winter said.

Former Gov. Phil Bryant also responded to Winter's death.

"Mississippi has lost a great leader and statesman. Deborah and I offer our deepest condolences and prayers to the family of Governor William Winter upon his passing," Bryant tweeted.

"We are far better for the life, service and leadership of William Winter. Best known for his career of public service, he actually served the people of our state longer as a private citizen. I often disagree with his politics, but I never doubted his heart for our state," said longtime politico Andy Taggart.

Winter served in the US Army during World War II in the Philippines. He was elected to the state legislature in 1947 while still in law school. He served in the Army again during the Korean War.

Follow @justinvicory on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Ex-Miss. Gov. William Winter, 97, known for education reform, dies