All of us have people we can turn to when we're in need of inspiration. For many years, one such person in my life has been former Mississippi governor William F. Winter, a man whose courage and leadership, especially on racial and educational issues, have been demonstrated for decades.
Almost two months ago, I decided to mark Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday by writing about a speech Winter made in mid-November to a seminar for southern state legislators in Chapel Hill, N.C.
In that address, Winter said, "I must tell you that the problem of race, despite all the progress that we have made, remains the thorniest, trickiest and most difficult barrier that we confront to achieve a truly successful and united region.
"One of the reasons that it is so hard," he continued, "is that most white folks and most black folks do not share the same perspective. Most white folks think that we have come a lot further in race relations than most black people do. There is still too much misunderstanding between the races, too much white flight, too little trust, too many subtle nuances that signal the continuing gap."
Winter said the rift "is not, of course, just a southern problem, [but] I would like to believe that we who live in the South have a special insight" into how the problem might be overcome.
It's "a matter of trying to be honest with ourselves and each other. It is a matter of developing a sense of trust based on everyone -- black and white -- trying to start from the same place. That is admittedly harder for blacks to do than for whites. For black people have more to forgive, even if they cannot and probably should not forget. But there must come a time when we have to recognize that we are all in this together -- when we must move past the old divisions of race and understand our common interests and our common humanity."
When I asked Winter in a phone interview last week if he thought that time has come, he told me a story to explain why he is encouraged by what he sees -- at least in some communities.
After leaving the governorship in 1984, Winter helped form the Institute for Racial Reconciliation that bears his name at the University of Mississippi. One of its projects is in Neshoba County, notorious for the 1964 murders of three visiting civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, whose bodies were found beneath an earthen dam outside Philadelphia, Miss.
A year ago, the institute's director, Susan Glisson, responded to a request from several Philadelphians, both black and white, to help them organize a community response for the 40th anniversary of the murders. "We got some people together," she told me, "and for the first time, there were some public conversations about what had happened there. They began to meet every week; people just came and told their stories, discussed how they felt about it."
By the end of March, she said, the group decided to issue a public call for justice. Seven Klansmen had been convicted on federal charges of violating civil rights; none served more than six years. No one had been tried for murder.
In June, on the anniversary of the crime, the Philadelphia Coalition, as the group now called itself, played host to 1,500 people, including Gov. Haley Barbour and three members of Congress, all of whom endorsed the call for justice. In September the coalition brought Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to Philadelphia for a meeting with members of Andrew Goodman's family.
Earlier this month, Hood announced that Edgar Ray Killen had been indicted for his part in the murder of the three men -- the first time the state of Mississippi had moved against the alleged perpetrators.
Killen's trial, Winter and Glisson said, will not be the end of the healing process. The coalition, which includes not just members of the two races but Choctaw Indians who have long lived separately in the county, wants to extend its work to others. They are assembling an oral history of race relations in Neshoba County and marking places with roadside signs where significant events took place, and they are busy developing a civil rights history curriculum for schools in the area. Later this year, they plan a statewide conference for teachers to learn from their experience.
Winter, now in his eighties, is as impatient as a young man for change. "It comes so slowly," he told me, "but it is finally happening." Like Dr. King himself, he is inspirational.