In the early 1970s after the Civil Rights Movement had run its course and 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, Reuben Askew of Florida, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, and William Waller of Mississippi. Governor 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 October 21, 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 degree at Memphis State University and his law degree from the University of Mississippi, Waller established a law practice in Jackson. After the Korean War, during which he served as an intelligence officer, Waller was elected Hinds County District Attorney in 1959 and was re-elected in 1963. Waller’s most famous case as a prosecuting attorney was the Medgar Evers assassination. Waller’s vigorous prosecution of that case brought many commendations to the young district attorney and was often cited as an indication of the changing attitudes of Mississippi’s public officials.
After an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1967, Waller was elected to the state’s highest office on his second try. In the 1971 general election, Waller defeated Charles Evers, an independent candidate who was the brother of Medgar Evers and the first African American Mississippian in the state’s history to run for governor.
One of the most important accomplishments of Governor Waller’s administration was the separation of the tax collecting responsibilities from the law enforcement duties of the county sheriff. That change, which created two separate offices and allowed sheriffs to succeed themselves, improved the quality of law enforcement in Mississippi and professionalized the office of sheriff. Governor Waller also integrated the highway patrol and appointed African Americans to boards, commissions, and other state agencies. For the first time in almost a century, African Americans actively participated in the affairs of state.
Under the leadership of Mississippi’s First Lady, the former Carroll Overton, the state’s historic Governor’s Mansion was saved for a second time from near collapse. Mrs. 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. Upon the completion of the restoration, which took three and one-half years, the Governor’s Mansion was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975.
After leaving office, Governor Waller resumed his law practice in Jackson, which he continued until his death on November 30, 2011.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1972-1976), 25.
Sansing, David and Waller, Carroll. A History of the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion, 177-194.