So begins the first entry, dated Sunday, May 28, 1961, in “Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison,” Carol Ruth Silver account of her experiences as one of the many civil-rights activists (known as Freedom Riders) who traveled in interstate buses in southern states to test U.S. Supreme Court rulings outlawing segregation.
At 22, having graduated from University of Chicago and planning to return there for law school, Silver wonders, “Will something like being sent to jail in Mississippi keep me from taking my bar exam three years hence? Or would 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?”
In the book’s extensive concluding autobiographical notes, Silver — a longtime San Francisco resident who served on The City’s board of supervisors from 1977 to 1989 and is a lawyer, realtor, philanthropist and single mother — answers her own question by providing the context of the rest of her life.
As the daughter of second-generation Jewish atheists, she grew up knowing the importance of social action and, she writes, “the pursuit of social justice, including in particular the responsibility for active participation in creating justice and righteousness.”
Silver’s daily entries through Aug. 14, 1961, plus two in mid-December describing her trial, offer a unique perspective on 40 days spent in Mississippi jail, first at Hinds County Jail and then the Maximum Security Unit of Parchman Prison Farm State Penitentiary.
Detailed descriptions of the bad food, boredom (Silver created a chess set from white bread and spit, which she later smuggled out), bugs, bonding and/or falling out with other prisoners, cramped quarters, confusion and unfair treatment vividly evoke her life-changing experience.
Buttressed with 16 pages of photographs (mug shots and other archival and more contemporary images), chapter notes and an index, the book also includes an introduction by renowned civil rights historian Raymond Arsenault and a brief profile of co-Freedom Rider Claude Albert Liggins.
In the afterword, Cherie A. Gaines declares, “The Freedom Rides impacted the ‘soul’ of America. If the American dream of equal opportunity for one’s future lives on, it is because of the Carol Ruth Silvers, who believed the dream could become real and who risked their lives here at home to make it true. Read her diary with that thought in mind.”
Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison
By Carol Ruth Silver
Published by University Press of Mississippi