John Bell Williams

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John Bell Williams
Governor John Bell Williams, Jan. 16, 1968 to Jan. 18, 1972 (14122979895).jpg
55th Governor of Mississippi
In office
January 16, 1968 January 18, 1972
Lieutenant Charles L. Sullivan
Preceded by Paul B. Johnson, Jr.
Succeeded by William Waller
Member of the
U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi
In office
January 3, 1947 January 16, 1968
Preceded by Dan R. McGehee
Succeeded by Charles H. Griffin
Constituency 7th district (1947–53)
4th district (1953–63)
3rd district (1963–68)
Personal details
Born(1918-12-04)December 4, 1918
Raymond, Mississippi
DiedMarch 25, 1983(1983-03-25) (aged 64)
Brandon, Mississippi
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Ann Wells
Alma mater Hinds Community College
University of Mississippi
Mississippi College School of Law
Military service
AllegianceFlag of the United States (1912-1959).svg  United States
Branch/serviceFlag of the United States Army.svg  United States Army
United States Army Air Corps
RankPilot (injured in bomber crash)
Battles/wars World War II

John Bell Williams (December 4, 1918 – March 25, 1983) was an American Democratic politician who served as Governor of his native Mississippi from 1968 to 1972, after defeating numerous candidates. He had a history of supporting racial segregation but complied with a federal court order to finally desegregate Mississippi's public schools.


He was first elected to Congress in 1946, from Mississippi's 7th congressional district. He was the youngest man to be elected U.S. Representative from Mississippi. In what was then a one-party state due to disenfranchisement of African Americans, he was re-elected repeatedly to Congress through the 1966 election, even as the congressional districts were redefined.

Early life and education

John Bell Williams was born in 1918 in Raymond, the county seat of Hinds County, near the state capital of Jackson. He graduated in 1938 from Hinds Community College, then known as Hinds Junior College. He attended the University of Mississippi at Oxford and graduated in 1940 from Mississippi College School of Law, then known simply as the Jackson Law School.

In November 1941, he enlisted with the United States Army Air Corps and served as a pilot during World War II. He retired from active service after losing the lower part of his left arm as a result of a bomber crash in 1944. [1]

Political career

In November 1946, Williams was elected at the age of 27 (he turned 28 in December) to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from the 7th congressional district. (It was eliminated in 1950 and he was later elected from the 4th and 3rd congressional districts. This was redefined in 2003.) He was the youngest U.S. Representative to have been elected from Mississippi.

Williams advocated states' rights and segregation. He joined his state’s delegation in a walkout of the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He supported Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat presidential campaign, whose primary platform was racial segregation. Thurmond easily carried the electoral vote in Mississippi and three other Deep South states.

After the Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education ruling on May 17, 1954, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools, Williams made a speech on the House floor branding the day 'Black Monday', [2] and subsequently signed the 1956 Southern Manifesto. Williams supported the Democratic Stevenson-Sparkman campaign in 1952, but he favored unpledged Democratic electors in 1956 and 1960.

In 1964, Williams endorsed Republican Barry M. Goldwater in the general election against U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and helped raise funds for Goldwater in Mississippi. [3] Because of his activities for Goldwater, the Democratic caucus (in the House of Representatives) stripped Williams and a colleague, Albert W. Watson of South Carolina, of their House seniority.

Williams remained a Democrat and retained his seat in 1966. Watson soon defected to the GOP.


In 1967, Williams ran for governor. The field of candidates was large, including former Governor Ross Barnett and two future governors, William Winter and Bill Waller. In the primary campaign, Williams claimed that, during the 1962 desegregation of the University of Mississippi, former Governor Ross Barnett made a secret deal with the Kennedys over the admission of James Meredith, while publicly claiming to do everything to maintain college segregation. [4]

In the first round of balloting, Williams finished second to the moderate candidate, William Winter. In the runoff, Williams defeated Winter by 61,000 votes. In the general election, Williams handily defeated Democrat-turned-Republican Rubel Phillips, in his second unsuccessful campaign for governor. Phillips’ running mate for lieutenant governor in 1963, Stanford Morse, a member of the Mississippi State Senate from Gulfport from 1956 to 1964, endorsed Williams in the 1967 race.

During the campaign, Williams joked that when the returns were tabulated, the Republicans “won’t be able to find a Rubel in the rubble.” [5]

During Williams’ term as governor, Mississippi was ordered to desegregate its public school system by a federal court, since it had made little progress since the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed such public schools unconstitutional. A case had been brought by civil rights activists and some desegregation of schools had happened at local levels. Williams did not defy the court. In December 1978, 24 years after Brown v. Board of Education , Mississippi legislature officially removed from its state constitution the mandate that schools be segregated.

Return to private practice

After his term, Williams resumed his law practice. Williams endorsed Republicans Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 for president, rather than the Democratic nominee both times, Jimmy Carter of Georgia.


Williams died in Rankin County on March 25, 1983, [6] being found dead in his apartment the following day; the cause was ruled to be a heart attack. [7] He was buried on March 28, 1983 and his funeral was held in the first Baptist Church in Jackson the following day. [8]

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  1. "John Bell Williams, 1918–1983". Civil Rights Digital Library. Digital Library of Georgia . Retrieved September 24, 2008.
  2. "With an Even Hand": Brown v. Board at Fifty". Library of Congress . Retrieved September 24, 2008.
  3. ‘Mississippi Ousts House Democrat: Goldwater Carries the State by Crushing Plurality’; The New York Times , November 4, 1964, p. 11
  4. Bolton, Charles C.; William F. Winter and the New Mississippi: A Biography, pp. 130-131 ISBN   1617037885
  5. Billy Hathorn, ‘Challenging the Status Quo: Rubel Lex Phillips and the Mississippi Republican Party (1963-1967)’, The Journal of Mississippi History XLVII, November 1985, No. 4, pp. 258, 261
  6. Shenon, Philip; ‘Ex-Mississippi Gov. Williams, Staunch Segregationist, Dies’; The New York Times, March 27, 1983
  7. Mellott, Margaret; ‘Former Mississippi Gov. John Bell Williams, a political maverick’; United Press International, March 26, 1983
  8. ‘Former Governor John Bell Williams’ (obituary); Jackson Clarion-Ledger , March 29, 1983, p. 26.
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Dan R. McGehee
Member of the  U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 7th congressional district

January 3, 1947–January 3, 1953
Succeeded by
District eliminated after Census 1950
Preceded by
Thomas Abernethy
Member of the  U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 4th congressional district

January 3, 1953–January 3, 1963
Succeeded by
W. Arthur Winstead
Preceded by
Frank E. Smith
Member of the  U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 3rd congressional district

January 3, 1963–January 16, 1968
Succeeded by
Charles H. Griffin
Political offices
Preceded by
Paul B. Johnson, Jr.
Governor of Mississippi
January 16, 1968–January 18, 1972
Succeeded by
William Waller