• U.S.

Mississippi: The Closed Society

2 minute read

Jim Silver keeps a loaded shotgun in his Oxford, Miss., home. It is not for hunting; it is for protection. For 27 years Silver, a history professor at the University of Mississippi, has spoken out against the segregationist way of Mississippi life. The anonymous threats against him have been so numerous that he long ago lost count. He has been hauled before the Ole Miss board of trustees on Citizens Council charges ranging from practicing communism to insulting a Confederate general’s memory. In Mississippi, his has been a lonely battle.

Last week, as he stepped down as president of the Southern Historical Association, Silver delivered a scathing attack on life in mid-20th century Mississippi. It was by all odds the finest engagement he has fought so far.

“Mississippi,” said Silver, “has been on the defensive against inevitable social change for more than a century.” He charged that the state’s churches have hemmed and hawed between racial right and wrong, that lawyers and judges are confused about whether or not to obey federal courts, that legislators spend much of their time “devising legal subterfuges to keep the Negro in his place,” and that business leadership has abdicated its power to the white Citizens Councils. Even in such a “closed society,” Silver found, the Negro has made some gains—and will make more as he demands and is grudgingly accorded the right to vote. But Mississippi whites themselves have succeeded only in losing freedom. “The white man, determined to defend his way of life at all costs, no longer has freedom of choice in the realm of ideas because they must first be harmonized with the orthodoxy,” said Silver.

By committing itself to defending the biracial system, he said, Mississippi has erected a “totalitarian society” that blocks change and causes social paralysis. “Thus the Mississippian, who prides himself on his individuality, lives in a climate where nonconformity is forbidden, where the white man is not free, where he does not dare to express a deviating opinion without looking over his shoulder.”

At age 56, Silver was obviously risking his Ole Miss job with some nine years left before pensioned retirement. That made no difference. He was just plain fed up.

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