Segregation was the law of the land when William Winter came of age in the Deep South, which still has vestiges of racial terror in America. But he learned the error of his ways as he grew up in Grenada County, Mississippi, into adulthood in Jackson during the1950s and 1960s, he told NewsOne.
Now, at 93, he is one of the foremost activists in the civil rights movement. On Thursday, he was among several high-profile people honored with a Freedom Award by National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, for their work in the struggle for civil and human rights.
“Those were difficult years, years that I’m not proud of,” he said of racial segregation in the nation. “I wish we had been able to early on recognize the inhumanity that segregation was a part of. It took us so long. It took us so long and it took so many struggles and so many lives to overcome those evil forces based on slavery and racial segregation that kept us apart and kept us from being the kind of society all of us dreamed of having, but neglected to find out exactly how we got there.
Winter is best known for his role in leading the charge for publicly funded primary education while serving as the fifty-eighth governor of Mississippi from 1980-1984. The Toughest Job, a 2015 Emmy-winning documentary, tells the story of how his push for all people, regardless of race or class, to receive the same rights and privileges as the most privileged, according to his award biography.
In 1997, Gov. Winter served on the board of President Bill Clinton‘s “One America,” which launched an unprecedented national conversation about race. The success of the event at the University of Mississippi, the state’s flagship university, spawned the institute that carries his legacy today, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
In 2008, Governor Winter received the Profile in Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. He continues to practice law in Jackson, where he lives with his wife of 66 years. They have three grown daughters.
Besides Winter, this year’s honorees are Swin Cash, Benjamin Crump, Tawakkol Karman, the Honorable Damon J. Keith, Soledad O’Brien and Bryan Stevenson.
For his part, Winter said he was honored to receive the award from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
“It’s is a meaning experience for me to be associated with so many people who have contributed so much to the advancement of civil rights in our society,” he said. “I have made race relations one of the passions of my life.”