Happy birthday, Governor Winter

Former Governor William Winter, the namesake and inspiration of the Winter Institute, turns 97 today. His remarkable life has spanned nearly half of Mississippi’s 202-year history as a state. It’s a hard thing to fact check, but it’s unlikely that anyone has ever met more Mississippians over the course of a lifetime.

Indeed, there cannot be many people in the world who have met more people than Governor Winter has. And few have left such a positive imprint on the lives of those they have met, and fewer still have done more to improve the lives of those they’ve never met.

He served in the governor’s office from 1980 to 1984, which capped a long and distinguished career in Mississippi politics that began in 1947, when he was 24. Governor Winter is best known for the landmark Education Reform Act of 1982, which established state-funded kindergarten, raised teacher pay, hired early-grade literacy coaches, and reinstituted the compulsory attendance law that had been repealed in an effort to evade desegregation.

After he left office, he began an equally long and distinguished career as a private citizen, working to champion the same causes of racial reconciliation and public education that had marked his political career. One undertaking was his service on the National Advisory Board for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race in 1997.

We often think about an observation he shared after traveling the country on the advisory board, which is what led to the formation of the Winter Institute. He said:

“Wherever I’ve gone, irrespective of racial or cultural differences, I’ve found that people agree on several basic propositions: everybody wants a decent education for their children; everybody wants a fair chance to secure a job that will sustain them and their family; everybody wants to be able to live in a decent house on a safe street; everybody wants access to adequate health care; and everybody wants to be treated with dignity and respect.”

I would imagine that we can all speak to the truth of that statement. And yet look in any direction and you’ll see people who are denied some, or all, of these common propositions.

When we witness discrimination based on race or other types of identity, it often plays out through the denial of education, housing, job. Structural inequities are patterns of whose basic human desires are met and whose are not.

So if we all want the same basic things, why are they so difficult to achieve?

The challenge is that wanting something for ourselves does not necessarily mean we want it for others. Sometimes we’re just too preoccupied with our own well-being that we don’t stop to consider the experiences of others. Other times we take notice, but we explain it by denying that others want the same things we do. Or that they don’t deserve it.

We can too easily fall into the trap of thinking that satisfying our aspirations requires denying them to others – that for one to succeed, another must fail.

It is here that Governor Winter’s personal and political legacies intertwine. For us to become a society that fulfills our common aspirations, we must see in each person our common humanity.

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