In the early 1970s, after the civil rights movement had brought enormous changes to the South, a group of young and progressive southern governors attracted national attention. Among them were Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, Reubin Askew of Florida, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, and William Waller of Mississippi. Waller was elected at a crucial time in the state’s history, and his constructive leadership helped chart a new direction for Mississippi.
Waller, who was born in Lafayette County, Mississippi, on 21 October 1926, attended the public schools in the Black Jack community of Panola County and graduated from Oxford High School. After earning his bachelor of arts at Memphis State University and his law degree from the University of Mississippi, Waller established a law practice in Jackson. After serving as an intelligence officer during the Korean War, Waller was elected district attorney for the 7th Judicial District in 1959 and reelected in 1963. His most famous case was the Medgar Evers assassination, in which his vigorous prosecution earned commendations and was often cited as an indication of the changing attitudes of Mississippi’s public officials (although two all-white juries deadlocked and refused to convict Byron De La Beckwith at the time).
After an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1967, Waller was elected to the state’s highest office four years later. In the Democratic primary, Waller offered himself as a critic of the “Capitol Street Gang”—the lawyers, banks, and corporations that held most of the influence and power in the state. In the general election Waller defeated independent Charles Evers, the brother of Medgar Evers and the first black Mississippian to run for governor.
One of the most important accomplishments of Waller’s administration was the removal of tax-collecting responsibilities from the county sheriff’s duties. The creation of a separate office to collect taxes, combined with a provision that allowed sheriffs to succeed themselves, improved the quality of law enforcement in Mississippi and professionalized the office of sheriff. Waller also integrated the highway patrol and appointed blacks to boards, commissions, and other state agencies. For the first time in almost a century African Americans participated in affairs of state.
Under the leadership of Mississippi’s First Lady, Carroll Overton Waller, the state’s historic Governor’s Mansion was saved from near collapse. Carroll Waller, who referred to the 130-year-old building as the Home of Our Heritage, presided over the mansion’s restoration to its original 1842 design. In 1975, after completion of the three-and-a-half-year restoration, the Governor’s Mansion was designated a National Historic Landmark.
After leaving office, Waller resumed his law practice in Jackson. He lost elections for US Senate in 1978 and the governorship in 1987. Waller published a memoir, Straight Ahead, in 2007 and died on 30 November 2011.
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2008 (2nd ed., 2009)M
- ississippi Official and Statistical Register (1972–76)
- David Sansing and Carroll Waller, A History of the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion (1977)