William Winter and the New Mississippi

I’ll begin my book review of William Winter and the New Mississippi by Charles C. Bolton with full disclosure. My parents voted for William Winter every time he ran for office, and I would have joined them had I not lived out of the state during the years 1962 – 2001. I have several things in common with him. We had the same first grade teacher – his mother – though he was years ahead of me. Both of us graduated from Ole Miss with the privilege of sitting in Dr. James Silver’s classes. The family in which I grew up shared what William Winter called a “moderate” view of race relations in Mississippi and paralleled his own growth to the ultimate understanding that both blacks and whites were diminished by slavery and segregation. We share a love of our native state. My goal is to be as unbiased in this review as Charles Bolton is in his treatment of a difficult period in Mississippi history.  

When I requested an advance reading copy of the book, I wondered how someone could accurately portray both the travesty and the beauty of Mississippi and the challenges of being a forward-looking politician in the days of integration and the Civil Rights Movement. An extensive bibliography of primary source material including first person accounts, interviews with people who were on the scene, newspapers from the period, oral histories, and personal letters as well as interviews with William Winter himself satisfy the technical requirements for an accurate biography. The author’s feel for the honest dilemmas faced by those wanting change add a personal touch and heart to the book.

I read the book as one who knew the story already and wanted to be sure the author got it right. He did. He included the hopes and dreams of a man ahead of his time, the political necessities of compromise in order to win elections, and the occasions when William Winter’s supporters were disappointed with his compromises as he was himself. The author quotes Benjamin Muse with the Southern Regional council who was surprised as he visited the state, “A majority of educated Mississippians are silently or privately moderate on the race issue.” Mr. Muse then noted the difficulty of advocating anything less than absolute resistance to racial change. The book ends with the many honors bestowed on the former governor for his leadership, especially in the area of education. I’m thinking William Winter’s heart for this issue stemmed, at least in part, from our common first grade teacher.

As I read the book, a statement from my pastor father in one of my adult conversations with him about the need for change in Mississippi kept echoing in my head. He addressed the quandary of community leaders, as well as politicians, in their real desire to move forward. “If you are the leader, you have to be careful not to get too far ahead of the people. If they can’t see where you are going, they won’t follow and will revert instead to someone who will take them backward.” This book is well worth reading in its picture of one who has spent his life trying to balance that quandary.