William Forrest Winter: Fifty-eighth Governor of Mississippi: 1980-1984

by David Sansing / January 2004

For all of William Winter’s many contributions to the state of Mississippi, he will best be remembered for the Education Reform Act of 1982. After the legislature failed to enact his educational reforms during the regular session in 1982, Governor Winter called a special session. Under the authority given him by the state’s 1890 Constitution, Governor Winter restricted the legislation that could be introduced in that special session to education bills.

Prior to the special session, Governor Winter and several of his aides conducted local hearings throughout the state. Those meetings generated strong grassroots support for Governor Winter’s educational reforms. The Education Reform Act, passed during that special session, is considered the most significant educational legislation enacted in Mississippi since the establishment of its public school system in 1870. A public kindergarten is the cornerstone of that law, which has been heralded throughout the nation as a model of progressive educational legislation.

Winter was born in Grenada, Mississippi, on February 21, 1923. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and the Ole Miss law school. During World War II, Winter served in the United States Infantry in the Philippines. In 1947, while he was still in law school, Winter was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. He was subsequently re-elected in 1951 and 1955. In 1950-1951 he was the legislative assistant to U.S. Senator John Stennis. During the Korean War, he was recalled to military service.

Winter conducted his first statewide campaign in 1959 when he was elected state tax collector, a position he held until the office was abolished on his recommendation in 1964. He was then elected state treasurer. Following an unsuccessful race for governor in 1967, Winter was elected lieutenant governor in 1971.

While serving as lieutenant governor, 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.

Following another unsuccessful race for governor in 1975, Winter was elected governor in 1979. His administration was marked by an efficiency and a lack of controversy rarely seen in Mississippi politics.

In addition to his political career, Governor Winter was active in academics and other areas of public service. He served as president of the Mississippi Association of Mental Health and vice-president of the national association. He was a trustee of Belhaven College and Columbia Seminary, former president of the Mississippi Historical Society and the University of Mississippi Alumni Association.

He was an author and historian, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton as a member of the President’s Advisory Board on Race in 1997-1998. In the fall semester of 1989, Governor Winter held the Jamie L. Whitten Chair of Law and Government in the University of Mississippi Law School. The William Winter Professorship of History, an endowed professorship in the University of Mississippi history department, was established to honor one of the university’s most distinguished alumni. In 1996, the Mississippi Historical Society presented Governor Winter with the society’s prestigious Dunbar Rowland Award for his lifelong dedication to the study and preservation of Mississippi history. The William F. Winter Archives and History Building, dedicated November 7, 2003, is named in honor of the longtime president of the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The Center for Racial Reconciliation, formerly at the University of Mississippi and now in Jackson, is also named in his honor.

Governor Winter died on December 18, 2020, at age 97.

David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.

Lesson Plan

  • William F. Winter
    William F. Winter, Fifty-eighth Governor, 1980-1984. Courtesy, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.


Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1980-1984), 35.

William Winter Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Mullins, Jr., Andrew P. Building Consensus, A History of the Passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act, 1982 (n.p., 1999).