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Former Gov. Bill Waller dies

Bill Waller enters the Hinds County court house in 1964 during a trial of Byron De La Beckwith. -- Associated Press

JACKSON — Former Mississippi Gov. William Waller Sr., 85, died today.

On Tuesday Waller was admitted to St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, his law office confirmed.

Waller served as governor from 1972-76 — a time when Mississippi governors were limited to one term.

He ran unsuccessfully for the state’s highest office in 1967, but went on to win the 1971 general election over civil rights leader Charles Evers, who ran as an independent.

While governor, Waller effectively shut-down the segregationist Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission by vetoing its appropriation. He appointed many African Americans to positions in state government.

Waller also served as district attorney in Hinds County prior to running for governor. He twice prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith for the slaying of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, with both trials ended in hung juries. (Beckwith was later convicted in 1994.)

State Democratic Party director Rickey Cole said, “Gov. Waller was the first governor of Mississippi in modern times who recognized the need for diversity in state government. … Gov. Waller was a real advocate for progress and improvement during an important time of transition in Mississippi’s history, and he will be greatly missed.”

After leaving office, Waller lost the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in 1978 and for governor again in 1987.

Cole said he remembered Waller on the campaign trail often saying each city he visited was his favorite. When asked, Waller jokingly said: “When you’re a politician, you have to have been born in every county and kin to everybody.”

Current Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said in a statement that he and his wife Marsha extend their sympathies to the Waller family.

“Mississippians have lost a great leader who launched an era of change that continues to this day. Bill Waller began a transition from which our citizens have benefited, and his ‘Straight Ahead’ style helped our state move forward. … I was honored to present Governor Waller with the Mississippi Medal of Service in 2009. He deserved it and more.”

In 2007, Waller published “Straight Ahead: The Memoirs of a Mississippi Governor.” In the preface he wrote: “I ran for governor in 1967 because I wanted to help move Mississippi out of the horse and buggy age into the modern era.”

Former Mississippi  Gov. William Winter (1980-84), who served as lieutenant governor under Waller, said, “Bill Waller and I were longtime friends. We served together at a transition period in Mississippi politics. Bill Waller helped to break down the old racial prejudices and biases during his term as governor. I had the privilege of working closely with him in that regard. I also respected his deep devotion to serving the people of Mississippi. It was not just conversation with Bill: He really had a deep feeling, devotion and affection for all the people of Mississippi.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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