For all of William Winter’s many contributions to the state of Mississippi, he will be most remembered for the Education Reform Act of 1982, which was passed after Govorner Winter called a tense and controversial special session of the legislature. With the exception of that measure, which generated intense debate at the time but is now widely considered a model of progressive educational legislation, Winter’s administration was marked by an efficiency and a lack of controversy rarely seen in Mississippi politics.
Winter was born in Grenada on 21 February 1923. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi in 1943 and then joined the US Army, serving as an infantryman in the Philippines during World War II. He subsequently enrolled in the University of Mississippi Law School, graduating first in his class in 1949. In 1947, while still in school, Winter was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives, and he won reelection in 1951 and 1955. In 1950–51 he served as a legislative assistant to US senator John Stennis.
Winter conducted his first statewide campaign in 1959, winning election to the post of tax collector and remaining in office until 1964, when the position was abolished on his recommendation. He was then elected state treasurer. Following an unsuccessful race for governor in 1967, Winter was elected lieutenant governor in 1971. He tried again for the state’s highest office in 1975, when the Democratic nomination went to Cliff Finch, and in 1979, when he finally succeeded.
Winter had made education reform a centerpiece of his campaign, and during the first year of his term, he asked the legislature to set up a committee to study the needs of Mississippi’s schools. The committee recommended the passage of a compulsory attendance law, increased education funding, the establishment of a lay board of education, and state-supported kindergartens. But the legislature refused to pass the reform measure during its regular 1982 session. In response, the governor, several of his aides, and First Lady Elise Varner Winter undertook a grassroots campaign designed to drum up public support for reform and increase pressure on the legislature to act. The campaign included more than 450 speeches and public appearances around the state.
In mid-November, Winter called a special session of the legislature to begin on 6 December. The only item on the agenda would be education reform, and the public relations campaign had made sure that Mississippians would be watching. After two weeks of debate, legislators passed the bill. The Education Reform Act of 1982 is considered the most significant educational legislation enacted in Mississippi since the establishment of its public school system in 1870.
Winter left the Governor’s Mansion in January 1984 and made one more bid for public office, losing to incumbent Thad Cochran in that year’s election for the US Senate. Winter returned to practicing law in Jackson, though he continued his public service through a variety of civic organizations. He has held office in state and national mental health organizations and has served as president of the board of trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, as a trustee of Belhaven College and Columbia Seminary, and as president of the Mississippi Historical Society and the University of Mississippi Alumni Association. He participated in Pres. Bill Clinton’s Initiative on Race and taught for a semester at the University of Mississippi Law School.
The William Winter Professorship of History at the University of Mississippi has been endowed in his honor, and the Institute for Racial Reconciliation and the building that houses the Mississippi Department of Archives and History bear his name. While serving as lieutenant governor, William Winter received the Margaret Dixon Freedom of Information Award from the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press for his continuing support for the opening of the political process to both the general public and to the press. In 2008 the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum bestowed its Profile in Courage Award on Winter in recognition of his efforts to advance education and racial reconciliation.
- Charles C. Bolton, ed., Journal of Mississippi History (Winter 2008)
- Andrew P. Mullins Jr., Building Consensus: A History of the Passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act, 1982 (1999)
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2008 (2nd ed., 2009)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1980–84)
- James G. Thomas, Jr., ed., Southern Quarterly (Fall 2016)
- William Winter Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Elise Varner Winter, Once in a Lifetime: Reflections of a Mississippi First Lady (2015)
- William F. Winter and Andrew P. Mullins Jr., The Measure of Our Days: Writings of William F. Winter (2006)