Mississippi has lost her greatest champion. We at The Parents’ Campaign join all Mississippians in mourning the passing of former Governor William Winter, who died Friday evening at the age of 97, the most revered and beloved Mississippi governor of modern times. The greatest of public servants, Gov. Winter devoted his life to improving public schools and race relations in our state and beyond. His undeniable integrity, genteel nature, and statesmanship made him the consummate advocate, able to bring together people of diverse political persuasions, races, backgrounds, and convictions to move our state forward.
Gov. Winter is best known for having pushed through the landmark 1982 Education Reform Act. When the effort was twice defeated by the Mississippi Legislature, Gov. Winter took his case to the people of Mississippi, holding town hall events in school gymnasiums where he linked education and economic development, famously proclaiming, “The road out of the poor house runs past the school house.” The grassroots effort proved successful, and the landmark legislation passed in a special legislative session by a single vote.
Recognized as the most significant education legislation of its time, the Education Reform Act ushered in Mississippi’s first publicly funded kindergarten, pay raises for teachers, compulsory school attendance, hiring of teacher assistants, improved literacy programs, and numerous other reforms.
The late columnist Carol Rowan wrote of the act, “The greatest piece of civil rights, national security, and economic recovery legislation enacted this year does not bear any of those labels and did not come out of Congress. It is the bill enacted by the Mississippi Legislature to spend $106 million to give children of that state a more reasonable chance at a decent education and lift Mississippi out of the ignominy of being the worst-educated and most backward state in the union.”
Gov. Winter never stopped championing public schools. In 2004, he and his longtime friend, businessman Jack Reed, Sr., co-chaired the Coalition for Children and Public Education, a collaboration of Mississippi education advocates who held town hall meetings across the state to urge education proponents to mobilize in support of full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the funding mechanism for our public schools. One of the greatest honors of my life was being asked to travel with them to urge parents to participate. In 2005, thousands of Mississippians joined a petition drive calling for full funding of the MAEP. Parents, teachers, and other supporters loaded signed petitions into little red wagons and carried hand-made signs in local marches that earned wide-spread media attention. The effort culminated in a Step Up for Children rally in Jackson, and it was Winter and Reed who, on the steps of the State Capitol, were presented the more than 150,000 petition signatures to deliver to the Legislature.
That effort led to the establishment of The Parents’ Campaign in 2006, and in early 2007, the Legislature voted to fully fund the MAEP.
Gov. Winter’s dedication to racial reconciliation never wavered. He was broadly recognized for his work, being named by President Clinton to the National Commission on Race and the recipient of numerous national awards, including the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association, and the National Civil Rights Museum Award. The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History building bear his name. Gov. Winter’s life is chronicled in The Toughest Job, a documentary about his courageous career and innumerable accomplishments.
Gov. Winter loved Mississippi and believed in her potential, recognizing and acting on the conviction that public education is the central tenet of ensuring a bright future for every Mississippi child. He applied determination, optimism, and grace to every challenge our state faced, and he left Mississippi better than he found her. We extend our deepest condolences to Gov. Winter’s wife of 70 years, Elise Varner Winter, his family, and all those who loved him. They are many, and we are among them.
The Parents’ Campaign