JACKSON — Former Mississippi Gov. William Waller Sr. was remembered Saturday as a transformative figure who helped the state move beyond its segregationist politics during his tenure from 1972 to 1976.
More than 1,000 people attended Waller’s funeral at First Baptist Church in downtown Jackson. Hundreds more streamed through the Capitol rotunda earlier in the day, where his open casket, partially draped by an American flag, sat one story below the governor’s office.
Waller died of heart failure Wednesday after a brief illness. He was 85.
In the late 1960s, Waller was Hinds County district attorney and twice unsuccessfully prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith in the 1963 slaying of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. All-white juries deadlocked both times. In 1994, Beckwith was convicted by a mixed-race jury, with prosecutors using transcripts from Waller’s work.
“He was Mississippi’s Atticus Finch,” former state lawmaker Jim Walters said Saturday during visitation at the Capitol.
In Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Finch was the small-town lawyer who challenged racial injustice.
Waller, a Democrat, was the first Mississippi governor to appoint black people to top jobs in state government. During his first year as governor in 1972, the Mississippi Highway Patrol trained and graduated its first black troopers — a change that came after a lawsuit that challenged the all-white law enforcement agency.
On Saturday, two of the first three black troopers — R.O. Williams and Lewis Younger — went to the Capitol to view Waller’s casket and speak to the former governor’s family. Younger recalled that Waller supported the plan to integrate the Highway Patrol, which helped it succeed.
“We owed him as much, to come pay our respects,” said Younger, who served 21 years and retired as a major.
Williams said he and the other black troopers often accompanied Waller when the governor attended football games at any of the three historically black universities — a sign of inclusiveness and an effort on Waller’s part to reach out to the black community, which previous Mississippi governors had not done.
“He did stuff not just for the few people, but for the masses,” said Williams, who retired as a Highway Patrol master sergeant in 1996.
Under sunny skies Saturday, and with music wafting over from Jackson’s Christmas parade a few blocks away, Waller’s casket was greeted with a 19-gun salute as it was moved out of the Capitol and across the street to the First Baptist. Waller attended the church for six decades, usually sitting on the second pew in the massive sanctuary.
“To understand Bill Waller, you have to understand what he was made of, and that is faith, fishing, family and fun,” said one of his sons, William Waller Jr., chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The younger Waller told the funeral crowd that his father, raised in rural Lafayette County, was an enthusiastic fisherman who, unfortunately, had a tendency to cast the line too exuberantly and send his rod flying into the depths of the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
University of Mississippi history professor emeritus David Sansing, a family friend, recalled during his eulogy that one night 40 years ago, he returned from teaching a night class in Oxford and his wife gave him a phone message: Someone saying they were Bill Waller had called and wanted Sansing to call back. Sansing said he thought it was a joke by one of his students, because he had been praising the governor during his lectures.
Sansing returned the call, and it was the governor who said his wife, Carroll Waller, wanted to work with Sansing to write a history of the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion, which was dilapidated. Sansing said the governor, in typical blunt fashion, asked: “‘Can you be down here first thing in the morning and get started?'”
The book was written, and the 1842 Mansion was restored and is designated by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark. The mansion had been in such bad shape, Sansing said, that some people wanted to raze it and use the prime downtown Jackson location for commercial development.
“Whenever you pass the Governor’s Mansion, remember that without Bill Waller and his lovely wife, Carroll, there might be a hotel on that historic site,” Sansing said.
Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat who served as governor from January 2000 to January 2004, said at the Capitol Saturday that he’ll remember Waller for “his courage to include all people in state government.”
Longtime Mississippi journalist Bill Minor said he ranks Waller among the three best of the 14 governors he’s covered, along with J.P. Coleman and William Winter.
“Waller was special. He was a breakthrough governor,” Minor said.
Minor said many people didn’t know what to expect from Waller when he took office, but the governor turned out to be surprisingly open and inclusive.
“It was thought that he was going to continue the course the state was on … which was being in the old Confederacy. But he wanted to join the progressive governors in the South,” Minor said.