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. He served in the United States Congress for twenty-one years prior to his election as governor in 1967.
Williams, a native of Raymond, Mississippi, where he was born December 4, 1918, graduated from Hinds Junior College and then attended the University of Mississippi. After graduating from the Jackson School of Law, Williams was admitted to the bar and opened a law office at Raymond in 1940. Both Williams and his wife, the former Elizabeth Ann Wells, served in the U.S. military forces during World War II. Mrs. Williams served as a private in the Women’s Army Corps.
After serving two years as the Hinds County prosecuting attorney, Williams was elected to the U. S. Congress in 1946 from Mississippi’s third congressional district. At age twenty-seven, he was the youngest congressman in the state’s history. During his twenty-one years in Congress, which extended from the 80th Congress to the 90th, Williams was a champion of states’ rights and racial segregation.
Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision on Monday, May 17, 1954, Williams made a dramatic speech on the floor of the House of Representatives criticizing the court’s ruling. He branded Monday, May 17, 1954, “Black Monday.” Over the next several years, Williams became increasingly alienated from the national Democratic Party. In 1964 he publicly endorsed the Republican candidate for president, Barry Goldwater, and helped raise funds for his campaign in Mississippi. Goldwater received 87.1 percent of the presidential vote in Mississippi in 1964.
Because of his support for the Republican candidate and his fund-raising activities, the Democrats in Congress stripped Williams of his party seniority in 1965. Following his re-election to the House in 1966, Williams returned to Mississippi the next year and ran for governor as a Mississippi Democrat. From a large field of candidates, which included one former governor and two future governors, John Bell Williams emerged the eventual winner and was inaugurated January 16, 1968.
Like people across the nation, Mississippians in 1968 were disturbed by a seemingly unending Vietnam War. Yet in Mississippi, school desegregation remained the most troubling issue of all.
Although Governor Williams was an avowed segregationist, the most sweeping integration in Mississippi history occurred during his administration. By a federal court order the state’s dual segregated public school system was superseded by a unified integrated system in the spring of 1970. Governor Williams did not resist the court order and the transition from a dual to a unified system was made with remarkable success.
After he left office, Governor Williams resumed his law practice in Raymond which he continued until his death on March 25, 1983. The John Bell Williams Wildlife Management Area in Itawamba and Prentiss counties is named for Governor Williams.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1949-1952), 13; (1968-1972), 23.
John Bell Williams Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.