The Bravery of William WinterBreaking News
tags: obituaries, racism, civil rights, Jim Crow, Mississippi
Stuart Stevens is a Republican consultant and writer and currently a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project. His most recent book is It Was All A Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump.
I was only 14 but it was a scene I will never forget. In many ways, it changed my life.
It was 1967 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and William Winter was running for the Democratic nomination for governor. His opponent was Congressman John Bell Williams, a rabid segregationist. Winter, a Jackson lawyer who was the state treasurer and had previously served as the state tax collector, was the “moderate” on race. There was a question you heard a lot in those days: “Is he good on race?” Winter was good on race.
That same year, 1967, Byron De La Beckwith was running for lieutenant governor. Beckwith had been tried twice for the murder of Medgar Evers, each trial ending in a hung jury. Based on that publicity, he was a candidate for statewide office. His slogan: “A Straight Shooter.” I still have one of his banners I took from the side of a barn in Neshoba County, where Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman had been murdered and buried in a dam.
That was Mississippi in 1967, so it was no surprise that William Winter—whom John Bell Williams attacked as a “dedicated, demonstrated liberal”—was getting a lot of death threats. On this foggy night in Biloxi, Winter was scheduled to speak at a rally held at a high school football field. In the locker room before he went out, a group of men were trying to convince him not to speak. There had been a death threat—an anonymous phone call to his campaign manager from a man claiming he had been in a meeting of “an insane bunch of idiotic fanatics” who planned to shoot Winter: “Your man has been marked.” The call was recorded and the tape played for the candidate.
Winter had no formal security but there was a group of off-duty and former law-enforcement types who tried to keep him safe. My dad, a former FBI agent, was one. This night, the handful of men, including my father, tried to persuade Winter not to address the rally. But Winter insisted: He was going to speak. One of the men went out to a car and came back with a bulky bulletproof vest. Winter joked as he put it on. A couple of the men left and came back with rifles they hid under raincoats. Then Winter opened the locker-room door and walked out into the crowd. I thought it was the bravest thing I ever saw. If this was politics, I wanted it to be part of my life.
In 2001, Winter led an effort to change the state flag, which was basically the Confederate battle flag. That effort failed—but he lived long enough to see the flag taken down last summer and a new one adopted this fall. One of the last conversations I had with him was a couple of years ago and we talked about change in Mississippi. “Watch the flag,” he said. “It’ll come down. Just have faith.”
William Winter died on December 18 at the age of 97. When the COVID pandemic is no longer a factor, there will be a memorial service for Governor Winter at the state capitol. Over that service will fly the new state flag.
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