William Winter, Reform-Minded Mississippi Governor, Dies at 97

“He was the model of what you aspire to be as governor,” Ray Mabus, who worked in Mr. Winter’s administration and served as governor himself from 1988 to 1992, said in an interview. “He was the best governor Mississippi ever had.”

William Forrest Winter was born on Feb. 21, 1923, in Grenada, Miss., a small town in the north central part of the state. He grew up nearby, on a farm owned by his father, William Aylmer Winter, who served three terms in the State House of Representatives and three in the State Senate. His mother, Inez (Parker) Winter, was a teacher.

He is survived by his wife, Elise (Varner) Winter; his daughters, Anne Winter, Lele Gillespie and Eleanor Winter; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Both Black and white tenants lived and worked on the Winters’ farm, and young William developed friendships with several Black children. But this was Jim Crow-era Mississippi, and the Winters were typical in their embrace of the state’s enforced racial hierarchy.

“All I knew growing up was racial segregation,” Mr. Winter said in an interview for the documentary “The Toughest Job: William Winter’s Mississippi” (2014). “It was an accepted way of life in the white community.”

Still, two experiences pointed Mr. Winter in a different direction.

In college at the University of Mississippi, he became friends with James Silver, a history professor whose progressive teachings on race and civil rights inspired a generation of liberal Mississippians.

After graduating in 1943, Mr. Winter entered the Army as an officer. An aspiring politician even then, he dreamed of a combat role, but instead found himself training a segregated Black regiment in northeast Alabama. There, as part of an experiment in integration, he worked alongside Black officers, whose talk about civil rights and political progress inspired him to push for change back home.