A Story About Our Namesake and Inspiration, William Winter
On Thursday, April 24, Jackson State University hosted a special lecture given by our namesake and active board member, William Winter. Mississippi’s governor from 1980-1984 and a lifelong advocate for all his home state’s residents, Winter was honored by JSU for his life of public service. An incident that happened there goes a long way to illuminate why we do what we do.
Some 50 people, about half of them public policy students, attended the former governor’s talk and subsequent panel discussion, moderated by Curtina Moreland-Young, Ph.D., Jackson State professor emerita of Public Policy and Administration.
Winter discussed Mississippi’s progress and the work that remains to ensure that all Mississippians attain, as he said, “the quality of life that everybody is deserving of.” He encouraged the students to help move Mississippi forward by continuing with the public service they were studying at JSU.
Foremost among ways the students can help is by being vigorous advocates for education: “We owe it to the next generation of young Americans,” he said, “to see that our system of education is strengthened in every way possible.”
One student asked about Winter’s anti-discrimination work, which prompted him to bring up the Winter Institute. Instead of invoking decades of his own work, the always gracious ex-governor asked Portia Ballard Espy, director of community building for the Institute, to speak about our efforts in communities and classrooms to end difference-based discrimination.
The highlight of the afternoon occurred when Dr. Marcia Allen Owens, associate professor of Environmental Science & Policy at Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee, encountered the former governor. Allen Owens’s father, Willie T. Allen, was special assistant to the governor for health, education, and human services, the highest-ranking African American member of Governor Winter’s staff, and the first black cabinet official in Mississippi. She hadn’t seen Winter in more than 30 years, since he was governor.
“It was almost divine,” Allen Owens said. “I’m the only surviving child. My father is in the VA hospital; he’s lost both legs. Since my older brother passed, Governor Winter has called our house often to check on our parents, and I never got back to him.” She has visited Jackson from Tallahassee monthly for the last four years to be with her parents. When she saw that Winter was speaking at Jackson State, she decided to go. “I walked up to him before the lecture and said, ‘Governor Winter, you would know me as Willie T and Mildred’s little girl.’ He said, ‘Marcia!’ and threw his arms around me.”
Winter asked Allen Owens about her father’s mind. She replied that his long-term memory was in better shape than his short-term, and he quipped, “That’s just like me!”
During the Q&A session, Allen Owens stood up. She said that she didn’t have a question, but a comment. She thanked Winter for his impact, which continues in ways, she said, that he doesn’t know about. He made it possible for an undergraduate student at Jackson State to visit the governor’s mansion, and to go, in 1981, to the Democratic Convention. Allen Owens recalled watching her father and Governor Winter, two sharecroppers’ sons, walk together, having difficult, important conversations about their state. “To watch them walk and talk together, solving Mississippi’s most important problems,” Dr. Allen Owens said. “I learned so much. I just wanted to thank him.”