Waller, a true Mississippi rebel, dies at 85

12/05/2011

A view held by those outside the South – and no small number within – is that white racism not only dominated life in the region until about roughly 30 years ago, but that it was a predominant factor in the governments which oversaw the states of the former Confederacy.

To be certain, with governors such as George Wallace of Alabama, Orval Faubus of Arkansas and Lester Maddox of Georgia, it’s easy to see how one might reach that conclusion.

But, as with all stereotypes, it would be wrong to imply that all Southern leaders up to and through the Civil Rights movement were unabashed bigots.

Case in point is William “Bill” Waller, the former governor of Mississippi, who died last week in Jackson, Miss., at age 85.

Waller, a Democrat, was elected in 1971 and used his time in office to appoint blacks to administrative boards and commissions for the first time in post-Reconstruction Mississippi, according to the New York Times.

He elevated three historically black colleges to university status, and he abolished the anti-integration Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger described as the “state segregationist spy agency.”

Waller also declared a state holiday to honor Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader who had been murdered in 1963. The move was criticized, particularly by rural whites, according to the Times.

The latter designation was a meaningful one to Waller because as a district attorney in 1964 he had twice tried to convict segregationist Byron De La Beckwith of murdering Evers.

Evers was the Mississippi field secretary of the NAACP who was gunned down outside his Jackson home shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963.

Waller’s office worked with Jackson police and helped trace a high-powered rifle believed used in the killing to De La Beckwith.

Beckwith, an outspoken racist, was charged. His fingerprint was on the murder weapon.

“Even so, in two trials two all-white juries could not reach verdicts,” according to the Times.

Still, civil rights advocates, seeing at least a partial victory, praised Waller for preventing an acquittal, the publication added.

“No one believed that Byron De La Beckwith would ever be brought to trial for the murder of Medgar Evers,” David Sansing, history professor emeritus at the University of Mississippi, told the Clarion-Ledger, alluding to racial environment of Mississippi in the 1960s. “But Waller courageously did that.”

The fact the juries didn’t acquit Beckwith was a victory of sorts, Sansing added. Waller “demonstrated that Mississippians would not allow racial violence to go unpunished. The Beckwith trial was the beginning of a new racial era in Mississippi politics.”

While Waller’s successor dropped the murder charge in 1969, new evidence emerged in 1989, including witnesses who said they heard Beckwith brag about killing Evers.

Beckwith was indicted again and was convicted of murder in 1994. He died in prison in 2001 while serving a life sentence.

Waller’s legacy goes beyond the De La Beckwith prosecution, however. He helped usher in a new era in Mississippi, which had a reputation as being one of the most segregated states in the nation.

Elected governor by building a coalition of poor whites and newly enfranchised blacks, Waller became one of Mississippi’s the first statewide leaders to seek to tap the potential of all its citizens.

(Above: Bill Waller greets the morning audience at the pavilion in Founders’ Square at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., on July 28, 2005. Photo by the Associated Press.)

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