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A Southern Conscience

Mississippi: The Closed Society

by James W. Silver
Harcourt, Brace & World, 250 pp., $4.75

A book on Mississippi by a Mississippian at this particular moment in our history raises the inevitable question: What kind of Mississippian? Professor Silver wryly concedes some doubt whether he qualifies as a carpetbagger or a scalawag. His parents moved to North Carolina from upstate New York, where he was born, when he was five years old, and he has lived in the South ever since. He was educated entirely in the South, at the University of North Carolina, Peabody and Vanderbilt, and he has been a professor of history at the University of Mississippi for the last twenty-eight years. He teaches Southern history and served last year as President of the Southern Historical Association.

His sense of identity with the South and with Mississippi, deeper throughout this book than his sense of alienation, goes beyond the professional interest of the historian and social critic. His three children were born and grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. He estimates that he has taught some five thousand Mississippians and that former students of his live in every town in the state. He believes that “Mississippi is the most exciting place in America to live,” and when pressed for his reasons for continuing to live under conditions that occasionally require keeping a loaded shotgun at the door, he replies, “Hell, I like it here.” His recent decision to take a year’s leave and teach in the Middle West may be the better part of wisdom under the circumstances, but it is doubtful that it will end his identity with Mississippi.

Survival at Ole Miss called for lively concern for academic freedom, a cause for which Professor Silver has fought over the years. But there is little in Silver’s personality or prose that suggests the bleeding heart. He is a tough-minded individualist, fully conscious of the historical forces and social realities with which he has had to cope. What stung him into the present indictment of his state and its society was the insurrection at Oxford over the admission of James H. Meredith that was suppressed by federal forces in the fall of 1962. He witnessed the whole thing, saw students “suddenly turned into wild animals” and “sheets of flame about the size of our small house fall among the troops.” The experience bred in him a “growing compulsion to try to tell the truth, to relate in plain fashion what had taken place, and then to put in all in historical perspective.”

What encouraged Silver to speak out plainly was the example of James Meredith, whom he came to know and admire. And he was moved by the words of his fellow citizen and frequent adviser William Faulkner, who died shortly before the Oxford insurrection: “Some things you must never stop refusing to bear, injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame.” Refusing to bear them in silence, Silver decided to speak out.

His book brings to light some hard truths not only about the night of terror on the university campus, but about the past, the present, and the future of the whole civil rights movement. The South is the exposed nerve of the country in the racial crisis; and Mississippi is, as he says, “the South exaggerated.” It is in fact the essence of Black-Belt intransigence, the last of the last ditches. To read his account is to learn what such a society is like and what it means to live as an outspoken critic in that society in the midst of crisis.

Mississippi has not had a serious challenge to its white supremacy system since Reconstruction. Its structure of disfranchisement and segregation has been entrenched and secure since its foundations were laid in 1890. For the last decade the state has been engaged in shoring up and buttressing the order with elaborate laws, extra-legal terror, economic pressures, job threats, investigations, and propaganda. Every arm and branch of the government is involved in the effort, and so is the majority of the press and the business community.

As described in this account, the closed society of Mississippi bears more resemblance to the Soviet order than to anything closer home:

Every lawmaking body and every law enforcing agency is completely in the hands of those whites who are faithful to the orthodoxy. From governor to constable, from chief justice to justice of the peace, each and every officer of the society is dedicated to upholding and maintaining the status quo by whatever means are necessary. The white man is educated to believe in his superiority, and the Negro is educated to accept his position of subservience and inferiority. The civic and service clubs, the educational institutions, the churches, the business and labor organizations, the patriotic, social, and professional fraternities—all individuals who would advance themselves in any of these are oriented from infancy in the direction of loyalty to the accepted code.

As an effective means of thought control the closed society has few rivals. “The question is no longer of white against black,” wrote Faulkner. “It is no longer whether or not white blood shall remain pure, it is whether or not white people shall remain free.” The white man of his state, Silver believes, has already lost his freedom of thought, his freedom to consider alternatives, to entertain new ideas, even to employ with confidence the symbols of thought:

He has so corrupted the language itself that he says one thing while meaning another. He no longer has freedom of choice in the realm of ideas because his ideas must first be harmonized with the orthodoxy. He automatically distrusts new currents of thought, and if they clash with the prevailing wisdom, he ruthlessly eliminates them. He cannot allow himself the luxury of thinking about a problem on its merits. In spite of what he claims, the white Mississippian is not even conservative—he is merely negative. He grows up being against most things about which other men at least have the pleasure of arguing. He spends all his life on the defensive. The most he can hope for is a good fight before losing. This is the Mississippi way, this is the Mississippi heritage.

Like Southerners generally, Mississippians distort the past to defend the present. Standard components of the mythology are the Old South myth of a classical golden age of gracious living and the plantation legend of benevolent paternalism; the Confederate Myth of spontaneous self-defense against wanton and unprovoked Northern aggression; and, most essential of all, the Reconstruction Myth of the insolent intruder, the villian masqueraded as reformer, the hapless Negro victim, and the heroic resistance that justifies any means by the ends. Modern corollaries of the old myths are the doctrine of Negro contentment, the claim that all racial troubles are caused by outsiders, the conspiratorial theory of anti-segregation and civil rights movements, the condoning of mobs and vigilantes, and the appeal to states rights. A rhetorical allusion in a headline or the flourish of a Confederate flag is sufficient to invoke the whole mythology.

This picture of the closed society is supported with names and dates and addresses and documents. The author lists murders that have gone unpunished, bombings done with impunity, officers of the law who have incited mobs. He names preachers, judges, college presidents, editors, labor leaders, and legislators who have bowed to the dictates of the Citizens Council. He also lists the more spirited representatives of each of these callings who have been driven out of their professions or out of the state rather than knuckle under. The business community does not escape his indictment, and the bench and bar come in for the worst lashing of all:

What respect can there be for the legal process when one standard of justice prevails when a Negro commits a crime against a Negro, another when a Negro commits a crime against a white, still another when a white commits a crime against a white, and a fourth when a white commits a crime against a Negro?

The prospect for breaking out of the closed society and establishing a new order in Mississippi seems to Mr. Silver a remote one. “It is in the middle distance,” he writes, “that the terror will be worked out, that the convulsive imperatives required by the doctrine of white supremacy will wreak carnage.” He doubts that the present social order will develop the capacity to make the changes necessary in time to avoid disaster. The time is running out. It is his reluctant conclusion that it will ultimately require the power and authority of the federal government to open up the closed society.

The bleak picture is relieved by flashes of heroic resistance on the part of individuals of both races: an editor or lawyer here and a preacher or professor there. In particular Silver praises the courage of many of his colleagues on the university faculty, especially that of Dean Robert J. Farley of the Law School. Negroes add many names to his roll of honor, particularly James Meredith, Medgar Evers, and Aaron Henry. He thinks there is a chance that the deeds of such men may yet stir the imagination of a society with an old tradition of honoring personal courage.

That tradition might also help to gain a hearing in his state for Professor Silver’s indictment. It probably accounts in part for his survival. His book contains ample evidence of personal courage without a note of false heroics or moral posturing. The hundred pages of personal letters mainly to his children—among the richest parts of the book—contain candid and unsparing revelations of his own inner confusion and tension. He describes an ugly moment in the college cafeteria: “What I would have done if people had started roughing up the Negro I don’t know—probably would have left.” He tells how a rash on his skin breaks out in times of stress, of the cold sweat of an early social encounter with Meredith, of a painfully self-conscious golf game with him. And when pressures become intolerable he bursts out, “Anyway, I was fed up with the whole damned Negro business and certainly didn’t want any more involvement. But you can’t well get out.” If Mississippians are unmoved by Silver’s courage, they might be beguiled by his honesty And academicians everywhere can take a little more pride in their calling because of his example.

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