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By UPM Staff Date: May 23, 2024

Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison by Carol Ruth Silver


Q: Many of the young people who were Freedom Riders in 1961, are now advanced in years, and, alas, many are dying. What does Freedom Rider Diary do to preserve that history and legacy? 

A: Preserving history is best achieved by honoring those who actually were the actors in the historical events. I hope that in future years children studying the history of America will be able to read this book and imagine themselves faced with the challenges to which I and my fellow Freedom Riders responded, so long ago, in 1961. 


Q: Raymond Arsenault, who wrote the introduction to your book, has his own new book out, John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community. What thoughts and memories did this new book stir in you? 

A: John Lewis, not just a son of sharecroppers but a man who in his childhood bent his little body to pluck cotton balls from his family's crops, on land they rented from white landowners, always in debt, always in economic fear. That he was able to rise out of that situation because of his drive to seek an education, shines through to inspire all of the children today struggling to find their way in the adult world. But more, Ray Arsenault's subtitle for the book, John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community, is the latest and perhaps the most important of the studies of the influence on America of his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. 


Q: Remind us of how you wrote Freedom Rider Diary, please. The guards at Parchman did not exactly provide you with a laptop and a desk. 

A: When the big steel bars at Parchman Prison clanged shut in June of 1961 on our group of Freedom Rider girls, two or three of us in each of a dozen small cells which had previously held prisoners awaiting their execution in the nearby Electric Chair, we broke out into song. We sang of freedom, of hope, of God and redemption, even of forgiveness, in the rich and rhythmic gospel music of the African American girls. We felt triumphant -- because we were alive! We had come through days of threats to our very existence, essentially unscathed. Some of the young men, we knew, had been beaten and bloodied. We had feared similar outcomes, but here we were, locked away for safekeeping, even the rough and argumentative Deputy Sheriffs, out of sight.   

     I waited until the sounds of the prison had faded, the jingle of keys, a cough of a male prisoner somewhere, and then, very slowly, very carefully, I unfolded my Mississippi State Prison envelope, now covered with my tiny writing in my personal quasi-shorthand. My writing instrument was not a pen, not a pencil. It was the lead insert of a golf pencil from which I had chewed the wood away, a pencil which I had to admit I had stolen from the Mississippi Prison system, when given an opportunity. This grey lead object, about two inches long, blended into the grey paint of the bars, and day after day it sat in full view of the guards, but they never noticed it. So I wrote, by the faint light of the moon or the night lights which were kept on in the corridors, night after night, my Diary of a Freedom Rider.          


Q: When you came to Jackson, you were 23 years old, correct? What was the preparation for this journey? Did you know you would be jailed? 

A: From my religious orientation as a Jewish child, I was imbued with the responsibility of Tikkun Olam, the commandment, the obligation, of each of us to Make it Right, to fix what is wrong. Before the Freedom Rides I had had little opportunity to act on this principle, but when the Freedom Rides started, I was struck immediately by the absolute certainty that it was my responsibility to stand up, to be counted, to join with the other young people who were standing up for civil rights for all, whatever the cost to ourselves personally, in life or limb. 


Q: When you returned to Mississippi with this book, when you won the Eudora Welty Award from Mississippi University for Women, what were your impressions of advancement and change? 

A: After being released from Parchman Prison, and after traveling in the next year to Mississippi for trials and legal proceedings, I never visited Mississippi until almost fifty years later. The difference was overwhelming. Wherever we went, I saw white and African American people, young and old, casually chatting with each other, sitting in restaurants, walking comfortably on sidewalks where—I knew, I remembered—they could not have walked in 1961.  The highlight of that part of that trip was the blond, white, middle aged, middle class grocery store checker who noticed our group sporting Freedom Rider tee shirts and buttons. She commented:  "I want to thank you-all for coming down to Mississippi to help get us out of the poisonous mess we were in. Thank you." Was she being sarcastic? or sincere? There is no way to tell. But I chose to see the glass as half full, not half empty, so I smiled, and I said, "Thank you." 


Q: Where do you see our state, our nation backsliding and repeating the past? 

A: Our nation has come a very long way from the discriminatory actions by governments, unions, universities, and all of the other institutions which—in 1961—specifically oppressed and disadvantaged people of African American heritage, as well as people of other colors, as well as women, people of LGBTQ orientation, Native Americans, and other groups. Are we perfect? No. And progress is still much needed. But we must not let the Perfect be the enemy of the Good. Let us enjoy what is Good about America, particularly compared with so many other nations and states, where citizens are routinely denied the rights we take for granted -- of Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, and of the Press, and of Peaceable Assembly.


Q: What motivated you to finally bring this manuscript to light, fifty years after it was written? 

A: If not for the award winning Mississippi newspaper reporter, Jerry Mitchell, and the brave editors at the University Press of Mississippi, my Diary would never have seen the light of day. I am grateful to them, and I credit them always. I have had the good fortune to cross paths with good people throughout my life, and this was one of those times.    


Q: What do you want readers to take away from reading your story now, sixty years after Freedom Summer in 1964? 

A: Please remember, Dear Future Reader, that this book of mine memorializes one of the important forward steps in the progress of the American Civil Rights Movement. It did not happen by itself, but rather happened because brave young people stood up and took responsibility upon themselves. Our successful effort was to reverse the discrimination against African Americans, which had lasted about a hundred years after the end of the American Civil War. That war ended with the legal Emancipation of all slaves in America, but the implementation was not self-effectuating. Looking back, we can say: "YES, we did, we did make a real change, real progress for our country." Dear Future Reader, I hope that you will find for your life the issue or problem that you will want to address.  That will be your legacy.