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Mississippians Reflect On Legacy of William Waller

By Jeffrey Hess | Published 01 Dec 2011 07:10pm | comments
William Waller.

The body of former Mississippi Governor William Waller Senior will lie in state in Jackson tomorrow while people from around Mississippi pay their last respects.  MPB's Jeffrey Hess reports that Waller is often credited with helping Mississippi move past its painful civil rights era struggles.

"We believe that Mississippi is emblematic today of the true American Spirit, where people get together to help each other,"

That's Former Governor William Waller in 1974, welcoming then president Richard Nixon to Mississippi

Born in Oxford in 1926, Waller died this week in Jackson at the age of 85 after a short illness.

Waller first rose to prominence as District Attorney, when he prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith in 1963 for the assassination of Civil Rights Icon Medger Evers.

John Fox, Waller's Assistant DA on the case, says Waller knew the murder demanded justice.

"It was challenging. I don't know if it was the most. It was probably one that had the most fame, or infame, or cause célèbre. We had several trials that were of significance and this was one of them," fox said.

Waller tried the De La Beckwith twice, and two different juries came back hung, which Fox described as a disappointment.

Still, those two case were crucial to the 1994 case that resulted in De La Beckwith's murder conviction.

"There was not any elation, "hurray!" or that sort of thing. It was just like, 'well we tried' and we think it finally came to the proper conclusion," Fox said.

Waller used his time as Governor, 1972-to-1976, to push for racial reconciliation such as vetoing funding for the state Sovereignty Commission, a segregationist institution.

Former Governor William Winter, who worked closely with Waller, says Waller recognized that Mississippi had to move past segregation.

"We were finding that it was economically damaging to the state. We were having trouble encouraging businesses to come into Mississippi. And the time had come for us to recognize that if we were going to be a viable part of the United States, we were going to have to come to terms in integration," Winter said.

Winter, himself a former segregationist, says Waller was committed and forceful in his opinion, but was able move the state by not inflaming racial animosity.

"The people themselves, I think, were ready to accept that point of view. Many did not like it but the understood the reason behind Governor Waller's thinking and my own thinking. And not doing anything to stir the people's prejudices and biases," Winter said.

Waller also used his power as a Governor to appoint black Mississippians to post that had previously been held by whites.

Jim Rundles was working in radio in the early 1970's when Governor Waller called him and asked him to be an the first black assistant to the Governor.

"It seemed there were a lot of things he wanted to do. And he said 'I'm going to get started by appointing you my assistant, because I am going to need to ask you a lot of questions about what is going on in the black race'," Rundles said.

Rundles, now 86-years old, says Waller also set up a committee to learn more about problems facing black Mississippians.

"And it was comprised of black people from every county in the state. And they met once a month in the capitol on the first level and they discussed with him what was going on in their county in the African-American community. What was good, what was bad, and what needed changing," Rundles said.

Waller also changed the state's higher education system, integrated the highway patrol, and set the foundation for the development of the state's four-lane highway system.

University of Mississippi history professor emeritus David Sansing says Waller's administration signaled the start of the modern era in Mississippi.

"I don't think we have had any other governor in the last 75 years that has changed Mississippi so much, so quickly for the better than Bill Waller," Sansing said.

Waller is survived by his wife of 61-years, four children and 14 grandchildren.

The funeral will be held Saturday at the first Baptist Church in Jackson.





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