Former University of Mississippi history chair James Silver was once described as being “the oldest living, breathing, practicing example of academic freedom in Mississippi.”
Today at 4 p.m., more than a hundred of Silver’s family, friends and former students, among many others, whose lives that Silver touched during his time at Ole Miss are expected to gather by the new pond on Sorority Row that will be named in Silver’s honor, 75 years to the month after Silver joined the UM staff. They will also dedicate a memorial which stands about 100 yards from Faculty House 6 where Silver and his wife, Margaret “Dutch” Silver, lived for many years.
Following the dedication, guests move into the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics for a symposium, with a panel full of Silver’s former students. The panel will include former Governor of Mississippi William Winter, retired journalist Elizabeth Shiver, president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation at Monticello, Daniel Jordan; and editorial page editor for the Charlotte Observer, Ed Williams. Former Mississippi court supreme justice Jimmy Robertson will also speak during the ceremony. The symposium will open with an introduction from Chancellor Dan Jones.
John Bradley, law professor and chair of the commemorative steering committee, said he thinks the lineup being brought to the table is “first class.” “Many of Silver’s students were the kind of people that went on to have successful careers,” Bradley said. “We could only have a certain number of people on the panel, but we certainly did not exhaust our list. “He was really active on the campus,” Bradley continued. “Silver knew a lot of students, whether they took his class or not. He was a man who had a lot of impact on the student.”
When James Meredith became the first African-American to enroll in classes at UM, Silver was one of the few who opened up welcome arms to him.
Shortly after Silver authored the book “Mississippi: The Closed Society.” In the book Silver condemns the state, saying that it is such bad position that he didn’t see the state being able to save itself anytime soon. Silver wrote that two entities were battling: One being all powerful but losing it’s strength, while the other being perceived weak but gaining momentum every single day. They were each battling for what Silver claimed to be a “new society.”
“Perhaps it can be seen only as a matter of faith, as something beyond a temporal Jordan,” he continued. “It is in the middle distance that the terror will be worked out, that the convulsive imperatives required by the doctrine of white supremacy will wreak carnage.”
Silver’s liberal views on racial equality caused controversy throughout the state and made him the enemy of white segregationists throughout the state including his own campus.
During the 1960’s a small publication made it’s way throughout campus under the title “Rebel Underground.” The small, irregular publication referred to the professor by the nickname of “Thirty Pieces of Silver,” and openly attacked him in their content, even going so far as to say that he was a facilitator of interracial pornography.
Silver would speak at conferences and write letters to publications, often voicing his displeasure with his adopted state’s view on integration. Silver received some threats so bad, that he admitted to sleeping next to a loaded shotgun in his campus home.
He was brought forth in front of the UM board of trustees on Citizens Council for charges that ranged from disgracing the memory of a Confederate General’s memory to practicing communism.
When he stepped down as president of the SHA, he delivered a speech that many considered to be his finest to date.
“Mississippi has been on the defensive against inevitable social change for more than a century,” Silver said during the speech. “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.”
In the state his biggest enemy was the White Citizens Council, which began a campaign to force the state to dismiss him. Silver didn’t wait to find out the end result, and took a leave of absence in 1965, a year after the volume was published. He would teach at Notre Dame and South Florida, never returning to the university.
He retired to Tampa in 1982, after 46 years of teaching. The outspoken historian passed away in July of 1988 due to complications from emphysema at the age of 81.
Charles Eagles, UM history professor, and one of the five on the steering committee, devoted an entire chapter of his book The Price of Defiance to Silver. “The chapter in Charles Eagles book is exceptionally good. Not just what people said happened, but what happened,” Bradley said. When asked what students can take from Silver’s actions in trying times, Bradley responded with one word: “Courage.”
“That took courage. He received a lot of threats,” Bradley said. “It’s hard to recreate, to get a sense of how sharp tempers were and how mean people were. But those were kind of fighting words. People disagreed with you, whether the state ought to have an official policy of racial segregation in schools.” Bradley, who joined the UM staff in 1966, said he saw changes being made, and he attributes a lot of that to the courageous actions of Silver. “There is no way of saying whether or not this would have happened with or without Jim Silver,” Bradley said. “But his work was surely in the mix and played an important part for the time and the state”
Overby Fellow and Kelly G. Cook Chair of Journalism Curtis Wilkie commented on Silver’s importance to the state of Mississippi. “Dr. Silver was a major figure in Mississippi who became a positive influence and inspiration to many people who were troubled over the state’s segregationist policies,” Wilkie said. Wilkie said Silver was a “courageous man” who “challenged his students to dare to be different during difficult times in Mississippi. “As a result, others began to speak out when it was unpopular to do so,” Wilkie said.
Bradley said Silver was a very personable guy and people liked him. “He displayed courage in dangerous times,” Bradley said. “He didn’t go around poppin’ off. He made speeches, he wrote letters that were published. He gave voice to what he thought was right. His real legacy is to challenge students consider ideas different from their own experiences. Controversial ones. That’s education. That’s what education is.”
From the DM by Jacob Batte