Freedom Rider

I’ve just finished reading an electronic review copy of Carol Ruth Silver‘s Freedom Rider Diary. The freedom rides took place the summer after I was born (1961), so I obviously don’t remember them from that time, but they were present as “background knowledge” for me during my childhood. Because of my personal interests and teaching responsibilities, I’ve regularly come across freedom riders in my reading—but I’ve always assumed I more or less understood the freedom rider experience and have never looked for a detailed account specific to this part of our nation’s history. I am absolutely delighted that Carol Ruth Silver has made my knowledge a bit more specific and has changed my perception of the freedom rides from historical event to individuals’ experiences.

The introduction by historian Raymond Arsenault provides useful context for Silver’s account. He reminds us that

To understand the magnitude of [the Freedom Riders’] achievement, we need to recall what the south and the nation were like in 1961. Rampant racial inequality and overt systematic racial discrimination prevailed in virtually every aspect of American life, from employment, housing, and education to public accommodations, the legal justice system, and politics…. The Freedom Ride was designed to turn the Cold War to the Civil Rights Movement’s advantage, to convince the Kennedy administration and the American public that it was dangerous and counterproductive, and essentially immoral, for the United States to call for democracy and freedom abroad when that same democracy and freedom was denied to millions of black Americans at home.

Carol Ruth Silver’s diary reveals that her decision to become a Freedom Rider was a quick one (though she spent plenty of time mulling things over once she’d volunteered). She’d planned to take a bus during the second half of that summer to visit friends in Mexico City, and felt that it made sense to use her journey through the south to contribute to the greater good. Once she’d volunteered, she began asking questions of herself:

Will something like being sent to jail in Mississippi for flaunting segregation laws keep me from taking my bar exam [she was about to begin law school] three years hence? Or would the university of Chicago refuse me a scholarship or even kick me out of law school if it found out that I had a jail record? Would I be denied a security clearance?… What if the next time I need a security clearance the buraeucrat who is supposed to put on the final stamp is a Klansman from Jackson, Mississippi?

She ultimately answered those questions with one more question: “if I sacrifice my conscience to my career what have I left?”

That attitude is what I found most moving about Silver’s account. Having spent my childhood observing the social struggles of the 1960s from the sideline left me with nostalgia as a teenager for a time that had come just a bit too early for me to participate. As I attended college, I went through ebbs and flows of activism, advocating at different times for abortion rights, gay rights, women’s rights, a boycott of South Africa. Still, I always felt that there had been something purer, truer about the time I’d missed and those who had gone before me, and Silver’s book confirmed this feeling.

Silver wrestles sincerely with the process of non-violent civil disobedience; she expects herself to love those she’s protesting against. She believes deeply in the promises of the Constitution and expects our nation to live up to them. She doesn’t surrender to cynicism, doesn’t even seem to consider that an option.

As I said, while I more or less knew the Freedom Rider story, there were a great many details I didn’t know. I knew the riders spent time in prison. I didn’t know that during most of that time they were denied writing materials, mail, even mattresses. I knew the Freedom riders went to court. I didn’t know that each of them appeared in court three separate times—continually interrupting their lives to return to Mississippi and the legal battle they were fighting.

Silver’s observations are astute. For example, at her third hearing as a black potential juror is quickly removed by prosecution, but told by the judge to report for jury duty again the next day (when he would once again, no doubt, be removed), Sliver says she “noted angrily to myself, [that this process of being repeatedly called without being impaneled] is a form of intimidation to prevent Negroes registering to vote, if they must give up a day or days of work to show up for jury duty, only to be insulted by being excused for being Negro.”

Silver’s diary ends with a note that her conviction, and that of other Freedom Riders, was overturned in 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Thomas v. Mississippi ruling.

Silver’s diary is followed by additional materials: an excellent collection of photographs from the Freedom Rides; an afterword by Cherie A. Gaines; an account of the experiences of Claude Albert Liggins, another of the Freedom Riders; a broader autobiography of Silver herself; and a list of suggested readings.

I want to note that the author is the Carol Ruth Silver who was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when Dan White, a recently resigned Supervisor, shot and killed both Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly-gay supervisor, and Mayor George Moscone. These murders, the not-guilty-due-to-diminished-capacity verdict White received (remember the Twinkie defense?), and the riots that followed the verdict played themselves out over the years that I was coming out as a lesbian and emphasized for me the importance and the risks of being publicly visible. So, in a way I feel as if her diary has brought me full circle by a backwards movement through time.

This is a book worth buying, reading, and rereading. Different parts of it will speak to you at different times: the voice of Silver the young woman; the voice of Silver the experienced politician and activist; the historical background, the photos. I know I’ll be returning to it regularly in the future to see what else I can learn from it.

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