Katie Blount, executive director of the state Department of Archives and History, said that the Two Mississippi Museums “stand at the intersection of Gov. William Winter’s three greatest passions: history, education and racial justice.”
It was at those museums — the civil rights and history museums in downtown Jackson on Tuesday — that Mississippi paid its final respects to Winter, the 58th governor and conscience of the state. Winter died in December 2020, a few months before his wife and partner of 70 years, Elise, passed away.
Former President Bill Clinton, whose terms as governor of Arkansas partially coincided with Winter’s tenure as Mississippi governor in the early 1980s, was among the about 800 on hand Tuesday to honor both the Winters at the Two Mississippi Museums.
“We were neighbors and so much more,” said Clinton, who at age 75 is about 22 years younger than Winter was when he died. Clinton went on to say that the Winters “had the most unusual balance. They were highly intelligent, highly energetic and openly ambitious and as good as gold because their ambition was for something worth being ambitious about.”
The Winter family decided not to hold a public service for the Winters during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it would have been a tragedy to completely forgo such an event considering the Winters were part of the fabric of Mississippi for more than half of a century.
Winter was elected to the Mississippi House in 1947 and later served in a litany of statewide offices, culminating with his tenure as governor. It was during that tenure that his crowning achievement was realized: the Education Reform Act of 1982, which enacted public kindergartens and a host of other improvements to the state’s schools.
As Clinton pointed out, Winter lost two elections for governor before finally capturing the seat. Those losses were attributable in large part to Winter’s moderation on the issue of race.
“When we were governors, it was rare for someone who was actually winning (elections) to stick his neck out on civil rights and have a good time doing it,” said Clinton, referencing that “Bill,” as he called Winter, always remained upbeat despite those two losses. He attributed Winter’s positive disposition to Elise.
While the Winters had a long political career, they might have been as influential after leaving office. Elise was active in Habitat for Humanity and played a key role in the development of the program in both the state and nation.
Republican Haley Barbour, who served as governor in the 2000s, told of how Winter and Reuben Anderson, who was the state’s first Black Supreme Court justice and later served with Winter on the Board of Archives and History, brought him the plan to develop the Two Mississippi Museums. The plan was approved and funded by the Legislature during Barbour’s tenure as governor.
Barbour also recounted asking the Democratic Winter to serve on a recovery board after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005. He said Winter played a key role on that board “because he loved Mississippi.”
It was after leaving politics that Winter became synonymous with racial reconciliation. The Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation was developed, and he apologized personally for some of his past rhetoric, though he was universally viewed a moderate on racial issues throughout his tenure in politics.
Anderson said when the state flag containing the Confederate battle emblem was finally taken down in the summer of 2020 and Anderson symbolically accepted the old flag as chair of the Archives and History Board, his old friend “was on my mind.” Anderson said the flag would not have been taken down if not for the work Winter had started many years ago.
At the event, Spence Flatgard, the current president of the Archives and History Board, which Winter served on for 50 years, announced that $5 million had been raised for the William and Elise Winter Education Endowment to ensure that all children across the state would have an opportunity to tour the Two Mississippi Museums.
Blount said the Winters believed “all of us, especially our children, must understand who we are and where we come from. And let us be lifted by (the Winters’) hope, by their faith that in Winter’s words, ‘We use our history to develop a more stable, more just society.’”