Two leaders with historic ties to Mississippi promise to share words of wisdom March 18 as Delta State University introduces its progressive new program, “Winning the Race: A Conference on Diversity and Community.”
The two-day conference will provide an innovative academic environment focusing on race relations and diversity.
Keynote speakers kicking off the event are the honorable Gov. William Winter and Dr. John Dittmer, former professor of history at Tougaloo College — both nationally recognized authorities on the civil rights movement.
They will share their knowledge of race relations as the speeches begin at 6 p.m. in the Bologna Performing Arts Center on Delta State’s campus.
The two first met in the summer of 1969 when Dittmer was teaching at Tougaloo. At the time, Winter was heavily involved with Mississippi politics, having unsuccessfully run for governor in 1967 as a moderate democrat seen as an integrationist. By the time Winter successfully ran for governor in 1980, Dittmer had left the state and was teaching in New England.
While their career paths may not have been closely knit after their initial meeting, they continue to share mutual admiration for their career efforts in racial reconciliation.
“Over the years, we have met from time to time at conferences and I admire him tremendously,” said Dittmer. “From afar, I looked back at Mississippi with pride and amazement during Winter’s gubernatorial years.”
Dittmer would go on to publish “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi,” which received the Bancroft Prize, the Lillian Smith Book Award for Nonfiction and the McLemore Prize from the Mississippi Historical Society.
Winter developed into one of the state’s most historic political leaders for backing desegregation and racial equality. However, Winter said if he could turn back time, he would have taken an even stronger stance against old Southern politics.
“It was politically unwise at the time to preach full desegregation, and I wish I had the freedom to be as aggressive of an activist as Dittmer,” said Winter.
“At this conference, I think you will hear two speakers who had very different professional freedoms during that era,” added Winter. “Looking back, I wish I had been able to be more outspoken. I admire John Dittmer because he is respected as an activist and academic expert of the Civil Rights movement.”
But Dittmer also commends Winter for continuing to make a significant impact in the Magnolia State.
“In recent years, Winter has been at the forefront of social change in Mississippi, serving on President Clinton’s National Advisory Board on Race Relations, and more importantly, with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss,” said Dittmer. “Mr. Winter is not afraid to wade into controversy on racial matters. His taking a lead role in the unsuccessful effort to take the stars and bars off the state flag is just one example.
“I eagerly look forward to hearing him speak because he speaks about Mississippi’s troubled past and potential for the future better than anyone else.”
Winter agreed the conference will provide a platform to openly discuss the racial barriers that still impact the South, and America, to this day.
“The task we have now is to eliminate racism wherever, whenever, however it appears — not to condone the acceptance of racial slurs and to eliminate disrespect on the basis of race,” said Winter. “It’s a big challenge for us now, to find those areas where people still do not work together, still do not respect each other to the extent that they should.”
The keynoters both praised Delta State for taking the initiative to bring this dialogue to the forefront, as the institution is a beacon of multicultural identity in the Mississippi Delta.
“I really look forward to this conference,” said Dittmer. “The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer gives us an opportunity to reflect on our past and to celebrate the contributions of those local people who risked their lives to take charge of their destiny, and in so doing changed the state in important and positive ways.”
“Delta State is located in the heart of an area known for having the strongest defenders of segregation in our country,” said Winter. “The university has a unique opportunity, and responsibility, to provide leadership that will eliminate the areas that will continue to divide us, in terms of racism.”
For a full schedule of Winning the Race events, visit http://www.deltastate.edu/president/winning-the-race/.