Conversations; 416; Governor William Winter
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William winter's passion for education marks his career as a state legislator state treasurer lieutenant governor and finally governor of Mississippi from 1900 to 1904. His military service during the Second World War led him to shed his passive acceptance of the separatist traditions of the post Civil War South and fueled his dedication to reform the 1982 Mississippi education reform act was to become the centerpiece of his administration and turn the tide on education in the state. He believed that Mississippi strength was in its diversity and that it struggles with racial integration could serve as a model for the United States and the rest of the world. First however there was much work to be done. Let us take a look first of all back at 1982 and the State of the state address.
I'm not here today to be negative. I'm not here to deprecate. There are many good things that have been accomplished and mistakes.
I am simply here this afternoon standing up here before this joint session to ask you to look with me in the mirror and without flinching examine what we find there and see if there's anything that we need to do that we have not been doing.
Let me ask you to go back. Just a little over a decade.
Ten years ago in 1970 Mississippi had a per capita income that was 50 years in the nation.
But we were getting close to Arkansas we had closed on Arkansas where we were just two hundred dollars behind Arkansas law which was in 49 place.
Now what's happened since that time. We are still. In 50th place.
But after the most prosperous decade in American history we had dropped back by 1980 to where we were eight hundred dollars behind Harkin saw in 1970 we were three hundred dollars behind Alabama. By 1980 we were a thousand dollars behind Alabama in 1970 we were five hundred dollars behind Louisiana by 1980 we were $2000 behind news and now these rather surprising. And to me the very disturbing statistics.
Lead me to ask some hard questions.
Why am I have to inquire with a similar geographical location comparable climate the same kind of people. And it made it a favorable business environment that some folks say is the best in the United States. Come parity of transportation facilities and a stable political situation. Why are those Mississippi not compare more favorably in per capita income.
Why in short we last. And falling further.
Now I don't know how you feel about it but I have been bothered by that question and as a governor of Mississippi I have been led to ask a lot of the questions. I have asked those questions of a great many people a lot more knowledgeable about these things and I have asked them in the state and I have asked them out of this state. This is the answer that I inevitably get.
We are less team book capita income because we have too many under productive people too many unskilled people too many under educated people.
And lemme tell you something else.
We don't want to stay last on till we do something about that.
But take your luck problem. Well how are you. Great to see you.
I'm delighted to be with you using you remember that. I do remember that. That was a quiet audience and I don't take a word of it back. But they were sure sitting on their hands worth it. I I there I don't remember much applause in in watching that.
But I think they were listening. I think they were receptive to that message and I think what they ultimately did showed that they responded to but but they were a tough sell. It's always a tough sale. It's always tough to sell something that involves first of all raising taxes heading to the expense of the programs. But nothing comes cheap in this business of competing with the rest of the world biggest tax increase in the state's history.
That's right. Education Reform Act became the model for the rest of the country. Everybody else said what state which state did that. Yes. Nobody could believe. Well to the credit of that legislature they met their responsibilities. Was it priority one when you went into office.
Was it the very first and most important public education was not was not the priority issue in Mississippi at that time. Why not simply because we hadn't put a premium we had put a very high premium on formal education in Mississippi. We were a state committed to an economic development policy that relied on low skill workers that relied on people that didn't have much education if they had much education they'd be looking for high priced jobs and so we were building an economy around three things.
Low taxes cheap land low wages and we got about what we asked for. And in those days because of the end of segregation there were two different education systems who were optional absolute one much better than the other. Well we pretended to have separate but equal you know.
But they were never equal. And as a consequence there were hundreds of hundreds of thousands of young people in Mississippi black and white who did not get a competitive education in the 1950s at the time of the Brown decision. One in four white students was finishing high school. One in 40 black students. So we had this huge rather Valvano educated on under trained people that could not could not handle the job that the new economy was demanding and that's where we were in last place. Was it your mom. But you went to school in a barn. Exactly my mother was my first teacher and I didn't like that public school teacher. She said I can do a better job. And we'll see what the perverts who tell give us. When I started in the barn with my mother when I was five years old but then she then she taught the little one room one once one teacher school that I was a public school that I started. But out of your class up there. How many went on how many graduated how many. You were the only one to go to college. I was I was the only I was the only pupil in the history of that little public school that ever finished high school much less went to college. And that says something about the attitude that we had in rural Mississippi in those days about the importance of a formal education. There was the assumption that if people got too much education they'd be dissatisfied with working in the fields and in the sawmills and.
And on minimum wage jobs where they work and the work that needed to be done wouldn't be done. That's right exactly. So you went away to the service went away I was never drawn off somewhere or to change it in that it did change me.
It did change as it changed every want to I don't think anybody came back in World War Two particular mostly it was not didn't have a different aspect on life. First place we lost a lot of the provincialism that we had growing up in rural Mississippi had been to Memphis twice. Our group in Connecticut I've been to Memphis twice been a New Orleans was that was the extent of my that was your world travels.
How did the service change your attitudes about race.
When I became a second lieutenant out of ASA can't a screw. Second lieutenant of infantry. I was assigned to one of two all black infantry training regiments in United States Army Onil told to segregate. I had white officers and black enlisted men and then in the course of my service in that regiment over in Fort McClellan Alabama the army tried a great experiment. They d segregated the officer corps and that regiment and I found myself serving with black officers from all over the country. Had you ever thought about that before. I never thought about growing up in a totally segregated. I had of course work with played with it but was it an issue for you was it difficult was it. No it was not it was not. I think it was less of an issue for me growing up. But having grown up in Mississippi then it may have been for some officers who had been who had grown up and they were to the country where there were no black people living. But I said and found that we had so many things in common. But what made a difference to me after having having served with these men these fine black officers working with them every day sharing the same mess facilities all the side the toilet facilities the housing facilities the local transportation facilities on the post it for McClellan on weekends when we would get ready to go announced in Alabama these black officers would have to ride at the back of the bus and we couldn't eat together in the restaurants and we couldn't go to the movies together.
They became a totally segregated society all over again. So while it worked on the base it didn't work out exactly. And that made you think what it made me think that something was going to change in the south in terms of race relations in terms of segregation in terms of offering equal opportunities to black people and that what we were dealing with was was an aberration that that that our way of life was really not the way life was supposed to be lived. But I don't know how long it would take and I didn't know what I would have to go through to change it.
So when I went into politics.
Well I went into politics along with 12 of my colleagues and I was mayor there were 13 of us who were students at Ole Miss Law School in the fall of nine hundred forty six poorest sprang for selling all over as well. Burdens of the war. 13 i was announced to the legislature 12 of us were elected there were 12 members of the Ole Miss Law School student body who were members of Knesset legislature you have a forum for the campaign where we were going to change the world. We were what you did. We were we were pretty we're pretty realistic and we thought we could make a difference and we did make a deaf guy think that 1948 legislature was as good a legislature is as we've had up until that time he was the youngest legislature consisted of a lot of very in the war to a lot of a lot of. Members number of members who wanted Mississippi to make more advances economic and educational advances and we've made before.
But we were also confronted with the with the bugaboo of civil rights and the Truman civil rights program came down the pike and that's when we tried the states rights ticket of 1948 withdrew from the Democratic Party. Right. Isolated ourselves and I think a lot of us came to understand that that was not the way to go either. Did you ever think about giving up.
Oh I suppose though I was disillusioned from time to time but the one thing I did learn that if you're going to be in politics if you're going to try to accomplish anything it's meaningful that the greatest quality you can have is persistence. You may not have a lot of ability but if you hang in there long enough stick to it. Eventually some good things start to happen and that was that was a part of my own philosophy about how to get things done. How you ran for governor more than once. Pretty tough out at first. Persistence was it. Well I knew I knew that I. That was a goal that I had set for myself I was not fanatical about it it wasn't something that I thought would ruin my life if I didn't get a big girl now but it was something that I thought would be fulfill ultimately fulfilling and that maybe I could make some sort of contribution to improving the state with without taking myself too seriously.
But did you decide on day one that it was going to be education reform the way it was crafted done.
That was always my number one priority when I ran in 1067 education was the key of my platform and then when I ran again and said I think I may have told you the story about calling up my friend Julian Carolyn who would with whom I have served as lieutenant governor he was he was a lieutenant governor of Kentucky. I was a lieutenant governor Mississippi he ran for governor in 1975 and was elected I ran for governor the same year in Mississippi and was defeated are called Julian Carroll and I said June and how do you get elected.
And I got to thinking he said what you run on I said I run on improving public education he said that's where you made a mistake. He said public education does not have a political constituency in our part of the country. Now it has said what did you wrong. He said that Ronald got a paying jobs for everybody. So four years later I ran for governor the third time. I've talked a lot about better paying jobs.
And in your speech to that education was the end of it. But education and all that it was the education is the key to better paying jobs and steely. So let's go to 1982. All right and you've got the education reform act there in the legislature and it is d o a.
Not going anywhere. And Speaker Newman killed the kindergarten bill. Right.
Well the legislature did not. Let's put it the legislature didn't pass what he was saying Let him bring it to 30 years but there was one particular event they are where where we're headed right up to the point where it was going to come up for a vote in and the speaker during the house and I think that you thought what. I thought maybe this is the end of the road. I thought maybe this is going to kill a program that was in the spring of 1982 the spring of the last the regular session of 1982 so was it television that the turn the tide was at that TV show. Well that would I think that played a role and have so many 20 20 20 I did a story on it and I think there was a it was a good deal of indignation among a lot of people that the legislature had not seen fit to vote on the issue. I was looking for a vote on the nation didn't get a vote on it and that regular session all of which led to the opportunity to call the special session. That's right that's right that we put on. We put on a campaign that involved about 30000 citizens of this state. We have forums all over the state. We got people mobilized to to for his ways out giving speeches. First lady without members of my staff are out people all over the state. We couldn't. Whoever threw for first have to think we're gathered together we came along to talk about education.
They call it the Christmas miracle. But that actually passed what was it that made it pass. But what pushed it over the edge.
I think there was a recognition on the part of the legislature that this is something the people really were interested in and supported. They had they a taken a put a skeptical attitude about about my advancing the cause of education because they just had not enough people have spoken to them about the importance of education.
And I think they just thought this is some more rhetoric. And then as as more and more people came forward and expressed themselves in favor of doing whatever was necessary to improve our system of public education the legislature got the message the legislature responds I think always. I think it responds to how they perceive the progress of the people to be. But sometimes it takes a long arduous journey to get there.
But you're a you're a consensus builder. I mean if you had if you had bowed your back and put your hands on your hips and stood up there in front of women and been a bully would it have happened.
I don't think we were past education for. I came I came out of a totally different political school from the leadership of both houses. We had never been particularly allies talk about to speak to the lieutenant governor or some of the main committee chairman chairpersons. And I had I had I knew going in I had to work with these leaders. They may not have been the ones I would have chosen but I had to work well. We were all friends we were personal friends I had served legislative with with several others so our personal friends but we had a different political philosophy including our interest in in education. So I made it a point early on to keep in pretty close touch and every Tuesday morning every Tuesday morning during each of the regular sessions of the legislature I would have a speaker and a lieutenant governor and the chairs of the major or some of the major committees the money so-called money committees and have them for breakfast at the match and we would talk about our differences we would talk about where we could agree and where we disagreed and how we still could work together to get some things passed so as a result of that we didn't have many confrontations we had a lot of differences but not many public confrontations so by the time we finally got around to having a special session I found that it was through the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the house that we finally put the coalition together of that passage occasional format. And I could not have done it just with my own allies.
Well the next office run was for senator.
Unfortunately yes unfortunately you regret that. Who are Leslie I would do it again. He would not know if somebody else that won last night learned out of there. I ran against that cock right. And I like that. I said don't ever run against somebody you like and for goodness sake don't run against somebody of the just about everybody else like us. Then he and I came out of that race and I respect respected him after the race was over.
I hope he respects me enough and that's one of those for those races that have kind of you and you spent an awful lot of your life there working in racial issues with President Clinton with the racial reconciliation committee. Are are we better you think we we are better we are we are all light years better than we were you know 40 years ago. We've come so far in this state.
From that from that segregation dominated society that that I grew up in then we will continue to make progress but we still have a long ways to go we still have not solved a lot of the lot of the problems and there's still too much distrust between Rice and how do we solve that. We solve it by getting to understand that we all want about the same thing. I found this on the presidents advisory board on race. You bored it down regardless of where we were. And I want to I want to 26 states and that experience talk to people of every conceivable racial background. And I found out what regardless of where I was regardless of the people I was talking to whatever right the people wanted about Same thing I tell you what are they won't they won't an adequate education for their children. They want a fair shot at a decent job. They want to be able to live in a decent house on Safe Street. They want to have access to adequate health care.
And above all else they want to be treated with dignity and respect. That didn't change.
And if we can if enough of us can understand that basically we all will about the same thing out of life and that the superficial differences that result from skin color and different cultural backgrounds really really aren't that important. We're all members of the same right we amount of a human race and the sooner we can understand that we've solved most of our problems the flak that we're hurt when it didn't pass.
Well I was disappointed lest I will disappoint the governor ask you to lead the commission to come up with a solution for the Mississippi state flag.
And I had no illusions that I was going to be something. And I knew it was an emotional issue.
I understood that if you have any idea though that it was as emotional as it was I really really didn't think it was it would develop into the kind of emotional divisive issue that it did. I was hopeful at one time that there would be enough people who could understand that it was important to this state to have a flag that everybody could look at with the same eyes a flag ought to be a symbol of unity it should not be a symbol of division. And that's what concerned me. But I understood where a lot of people who opposed change coming from Iraq came out of that heritage myself your granny. My grandfather was a was a Confederate soldier. And I want to stand on the stand the. The feeling that we have the feeling of respect that we have five ancestors but I also think that if my grandfather had been living at the time we were trying to change the flag I think I think he would have understood what I was what I was about. You know we ought to be we ought to be instructed by history but we should not be dictated by it by history. And I think the way to I think the way to honor that heritage is to understand the heroism of the people who fought in the civil war regardless of their motivation.
Respect that heritage but let that flag be a symbol of that era and not a symbol of the 21st century.
What what is the best thing about being a teacher now up there and it had been a couple of times a month.
As far as I'm concerned the best thing about it is how much I'll be learning from these these young people because they have a toe they have a totally different perspective on things from from the perspective which I do. They've grown up amid different circumstance. So many or so many of these young people they miss about a state university. I want to break want to break out of that have not life that but they are the parents and the grandparents of Leoben they see. They see a college education they see a college diploma is the key to making that that transition.
It is always a pleasure to spend time with you. Thank you thank you Jean. I don't know people who've read this or not but Andy Mullins who used to be on your staff wrote this wonderful book that the University Press has put out called Building consensus about the passage of the reform act and it's a really worthwhile read. That's a good book and it did a great job with it. You did a great job. Well thanks. Thank you Jeanne. And thank you.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
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- Governor William Winter
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- No. 416. 00011103-00285709. William Forrest Winter (b. 1923) is an American politician from Mississippi. He served as the 58th Governor of Mississippi from 1980 to 1984 as a Democrat. He is known for his strong support of public education, freedom of information, racial reconciliation, and historic preservation. Winter is best remembered for the passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act.
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- Chicago: “Conversations; 416; Governor William Winter,” Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 16, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-77fqzdsh.
- MLA: “Conversations; 416; Governor William Winter.” Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 16, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-77fqzdsh>.
- APA: Conversations; 416; Governor William Winter. Boston, MA: Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-77fqzdsh