New Book Tells of Law School Alumna’s Freedom Ride
Carol Ruth Silver, ‘64, was 22 years old and about to start law school when she decided to ride a bus into Mississippi with five men, three white and two black, well aware that their journey would result in her arrest.
In a May 1961 entry from her diary, the subject of the new book Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison, Silver wondered, “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?”
Despite her fears, the next month Silver boarded a Greyhound bus for Jackson on one of more than 60 Freedom Rides that took place that spring and summer. The Freedom Riders were protesting segregation in the Jim Crow South and testing a 1960 Supreme Court decision that declared segregated facilities for interstate passengers illegal. They were often met not only by police but also violent mobs.
Silver was arrested in Jackson and charged with breach of peace for refusing to move out of the so-called “colored waiting room” at the bus stop. She spent forty days behind bars, including time at the maximum security Parchman prison. Amazingly, Silver managed to keep a journal on tiny, hidden scraps of paper, detailing her daily life inside Parchman. That journal was later turned into a manuscript that was published this year by the University Press of Mississippi.
The Law School didn’t reject her for her activism – Silver started here in the fall of 1961, shortly after her release. She wrote back then in her diary that rejection wouldn’t have stopped her anyway. “My interest in law has always been as an instrument for social justice,” she wrote. “If I sacrifice my conscience to my career, what have I left?”
Silver, a Boston native and a graduate of the College of University of Chicago, described herself as a “rabble-rouser” throughout her undergraduate and law school careers who focused on helping the marginalized whenever she could. At the Law School, she organized a chapter of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council (LSCRRC) which sent interns to the South to work for civil rights. And she spent the summer of 1963 working at a law firm in Uganda.
As a young lawyer, Silver continued her focus on civil rights, working first for the LSCRRC and then for federally funded legal aid programs. She went on to teach at a law school, work as legal counsel to the San Francisco sheriff, and start a Mandarin language school. She maintained a civil legal practice, mostly as a solo practitioner, for 30 years, and also worked in real estate. In 1977 she was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a seat she held until 1989. In 1996 she unsuccessfully ran for Congress.
Today, Silver continues her activism on many fronts; she is particularly focused on promoting the education of women and girls in Afghanistan.
History Professor Jane Dailey, who has an appointment in the Law School, contributed this review to the book’s back cover: “This vivid primary source allows an uncensored, unromanticized, and humbling view of the lived experience of young civil rights activists as they made the movement one day at a time, and of a foundational moment in what became Silver’s lifelong commitment to social justice and the daily pursuit of a more perfect Union.”