In the preface to his book of memoirs – “Straight Ahead” – Bill Waller, Mississippi’s fifty-sixth governor, stated that when he first ran for Governor in 1967, Mississippi’s “political system had been virtually unchanged since the horse and buggy days of the late nineteenth century.” He was right. Waller went on to say that “Mississippi was standing still”, and the “political power was vested in the legislature, whose members were not term-limited….” He said that “a small group of powerful legislators…in combination with the social and business leadership of the state, formed a ruling elite that determined public policy and perpetuated the racial traditions that had been in place since Reconstruction.” He also noted that Mississippi’s Constitution of 1890 “did not allow the Governor to succeed himself and strictly limited the authority of the executive branch….” He might have added that in 1967, Mississippi was still virtually a “one party state” although Republican Rubel Phillips (the first Republican to run for Governor since Reconstruction) ran unsuccessfully for Governor in the general election that year.
As we know, John Bell Williams was elected Governor of Mississippi in 1967, and Bill Waller finished fifth in the Democratic Primary, behind William Winter, Jimmy Swan, and former Governor Ross Barnett. But Waller ran again in 1971 and this time was elected Governor in an upset victory over Lieutenant Governor Charles Sullivan in the Democratic Primary and a victory over independent Charles Evers in the general election. In his 1971 campaign, Waller again attacked the “old guard” and called them “the Capitol Street Gang”.
I agree with those who say that Bill Waller was a transitional figure in Mississippi politics who, as a candidate, began the movement away from the oppressive, and racist politics of the past, and introduced modern campaign techniques into Mississippi statewide politics. He also was unquestionably a courageous public servant with great vision and leadership skills who, although clearly a conservative, bucked the tide of public opinion at the time and showed his respect for the rule of law by prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith on two occasions for the murder of Medgar Evers. As we know, both prosecutions ended in a mistrial.
Before he ran for Governor in 1967, Bill Waller served with distinction as the District Attorney for Hinds, Madison and Yazoo Counties. Joe Fancher, Jr., of Canton, Waller’s longtime friend, was Bill’s statewide campaign manager when he made his 1967 race. I returned to Canton from the Army in 1966 and was elected Madison County Attorney in a special election. Therefore, I had the good fortune to assist and serve under District Attorney Bill Waller for about one year while he was gearing up to run for Governor. In those days, the District Attorney’s job was part-time, and Waller was being paid approximately $8,500.00 per year. He did have assistants, however, and the county attorneys also assisted him in Madison and Yazoo Counties. As a twenty-seven year-old boy, I had great fun and learned a lot while working for a hard-charging district attorney who was about to run for Governor. Five years later, I was elected the district attorney for Rankin and Madison Counties and fondly remember the thrill of introducing Waller at a big rally at the Canton Courthouse when he was running for Governor in 1971.
I attended Bill Waller’s funeral last Saturday, December 3, 2011, at the First Baptist Church in Jackson. It was an upbeat, dignified and truly grand affair that was attended by past governors and many, many present and past state officials, friends and former Waller staff members. The Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, Bill Waller, Jr., spoke eloquently of his father and his mother and gave, perhaps, the finest speech of his life. His words rang true in capturing the essence of his father’s life. Also, the distinguished historian, David Sansing, gave a moving account of Governor Waller’s accomplishments, while also paying tribute to the First Lady, Carroll Waller, and rightly credited her with saving and restoring the historic Governor’s Mansion for future generations.
While I was never an insider in the Waller Administration or a close personal confidant or friend, I always admired Bill Waller, his intellect, and his work ethic. He was a great Governor, a great lawyer, and, in the end, was recognized as a great statesman. R.I.P.