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 …

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