John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 2, 2011

Waller among many who fell under Black Jack ‘spell’

News on Wednesday that former Governor Bill Waller had died at age 85 prompted phone calls to establish his Panola County connections.

We were fairly certain that during Waller’s school years the Lafayette County native had attended school at Black Jack. Our search for confirmation led us to several people; first to my high school classmate Gary Mills who came to Batesville schools in 1958 when Black Jack School was closed through consolidation.

Gary suggested that I call Hilda Wilson who suggested I call Gayle Crowe of Oxford who had been the Wallers’ neighbor when he was growing up. As it turns out, Crowe is still a neighbor to the late Governor’s brother, Don Waller, and suggested that I call him.

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And so it was Don Waller who confirmed that his older brother had attended Black Jack School for one or two years during the ninth and/or tenth grade, around 1940. The family then lived nearby in the Burgess community. When the state passed a rule that students had to attend schools in the county where they resided, Bill Waller transferred from Black Jack to Oxford where he finished high school, his brother said.

Bill Waller went on to become district attorney serving Hinds County after he finished law school and first attracted national attention when he vigorously prosecuted the state’s case against Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 sniper murder of Medger Evers. Though two attempts ended in mistrials, “No one believed that Byron De La Beckwith would ever be brought to trial for the murder of Medger Evers,” University of Mississippi history professor emeritus told the The Clarion-Ledger.

Mistrials also meant that De La Beckwith could be retried. (And he was. In 1994, a jury picked from Panola County found De La Beckwith guilty of the murder he had committed over 30 years earlier.)

Waller was elected governor in 1971 with a coalition of support from the white working class and newly-enfranchised black voters. His open, progressive policies would pull the state into the ranks of the New South.

Though he was not successful in subsequent political races, Waller remained active in politics even through last month’s election, after which he wrote a letter published in The Clarion-Ledger citing voter confusion and calling for open primaries.

When Waller spoke from the stump during that 1971 campaign, he often mentioned his experiences at Black Jack School, his brother recalled on Thursday.

Black Jack School was like that. It cast a spell — far out of proportion to its size or the duration of its history — over everybody who ever attended. This week the school, closed now for over half a century, lost a distinguished alumnus. One of many.