John Bell Williams’s political career took an unusual route to the office of governor. Most politicians first run for state or local office and then use those offices to launch a national career. Williams took the opposite approach, serving in the US Congress for more than twenty years prior to his election as Mississippi’s governor in 1967.
Williams, who was born in Raymond, Mississippi, on 4 December 1918, graduated from Hinds Junior College and then attended the University of Mississippi. After receiving a degree from the Jackson School of Law, Williams was admitted to the bar and opened a law office in Raymond in 1940. Williams served in the US Army Air Corps as a pilot during World War II but left active service after losing the lower part of his left arm in a 1944 bomber crash. On 12 October of that year, he married Elizabeth Ann Wells, who had also served in the military as a commissioned officer in the Women’s Army Corps.
After holding the post of Hinds County prosecuting attorney from 1944 to 1946, Williams won election to the US House of Representatives, becoming the youngest member of Congress in the state’s history at age twenty-seven. He remained in Congress until January 1968, championing states’ rights and racial segregation. Shortly after the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Williams made a dramatic speech on the floor of the House of Representatives during which he criticized the decision on constitutional, educational, and cultural grounds, describing desegregated schools as sites of anarchy. Over the next several years Williams became increasingly alienated from the national Democratic Party. In 1964 he publicly endorsed Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and helped raise funds for his campaign in Mississippi. Goldwater received 87.1 percent of the state’s presidential vote.
Because of Williams’s support for the Republican candidate and his fund-raising activities, the national Democratic Party expelled him in 1965. Two years later he ran for the governorship as a “Mississippi Democrat.” Criticizing his opponents as “ready to surrender to the Great Society” programs of Lyndon Johnson’s administration, Williams offered his candidacy as the best way to protect Mississippi from racial desegregation. Williams defeated a large field of candidates, including former governor Ross Barnett and future governors William Waller and William Winter, in the Democratic primaries and cruised to an easy victory over Republican Rubel L. Phillips in the November general election. Williams was inaugurated on 16 January 1968.
Despite Williams’s pledges to preserve segregation, the most sweeping integration in Mississippi history occurred during his administration. A federal court did away with the state’s dual segregated public school system and replaced it with a unified integrated system in the spring of 1970. Williams did not resist the court order.
Williams left office in 1972 and resumed his law practice in Raymond, continuing it until his death on 25 March 1983. The John Bell Williams Wildlife Management Area in Itawamba and Prentiss Counties is named in his honor.
- Jackson Clarion-Ledger (10 January 2010)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1949–52, 1968–72)
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2008 (2nd ed., 2009)
- John Bell Williams Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History