The Winter Institute grew out of One America in the 21st Century, known as the President’s Advisory Board on Race, an initiative created by President Bill Clinton in 1997. Among President Clinton’s seven appointees to his One America advisory board was the Honorable William F. Winter, Mississippi’s 58th governor, from 1980-1984, a champion of racial and educational equity. Governor Winter’s involvement in the national initiative brought the first-ever Deep-South dialogue about racial reconciliation to the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS–a noteworthy feat considering the institution’s history of race relations.
Hailed as the single most successful event of the entire Initiative year by President Clinton, the event encouraged the University of Mississippi to formalize its dialogue process with the creation of an institute to promote racial reconciliation and civic renewal.
Formally created in 1999, the institute was named in honor of Gov. Winter, who had been crucial to its founding. Until 2016, the institute was headed by its founding director, Dr. Susan M. Glisson, who shaped much of the philosophy and approach through a dedication to the ideals and approaches of the Civil Rights Movement, specifically drawing inspiration from Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Standing on the principle that local people know their own communities best, the Institute began its work responding to needs lifted up as people throughout the state began calling for support or facilitation in their towns and counties. Early community partners included groups in Rome and Drew, as well as Newton County. As word spread about Dr. Glisson and her team of student interns and volunteers, calls came from communities deeply impacted by the traumas of the civil rights era, including Neshoba County, site of the Freedom Summer murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964; McComb, which was known as the “Bombing Capital of the World” in 1964, with a deep history of civil rights organizing and white resistance to it; and east Tallahatchie County, where Emmett Till’s killers were unjustly acquitted by an all-white jury in 1955.
Out of this early community work, which used personal story-sharing as a means to both truth-telling and bridge-building, grew an approach eventually called The Welcome Table. This remains the basis for the work of the Institute’s Community Building team.
In 2009, after several years of growing student participation at the Institute, interns and supporters helped develop an intensive residential program for Mississippi high school students, which became known as the Summer Youth Institute (SYI). Over the next few years, this youth component grew into the Youth Engagement team, forming a vital part of the Institute’s work.
The Winter Institute added Policy and Academic Services branches in 2014. Policy was launched through the website, Rethink Mississippi, with Jake McGraw at the helm. Under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Stollman, the Academic Services branch focused particularly on working with colleges and universities–especially University of Mississippi students, faculty, staff, and administration– as well as professional organizations and other groups seeking anti-bias training.
In April 2018, the Winter Institute left the umbrella of the University of Mississippi to become a nonprofit organization, with headquarters in Jackson, MS. Today, the work of the Winter Institute continues across the state, region, and beyond, with a focus on Community Building, Youth Engagement, and Policy & Civic Engagement.