James Wesley Silver, a professor of history at the University of Mississippi from 1936 to 1964, emerged as one of the most critical voices of the state’s leadership in the aftermath of the riot surrounding James Meredith’s admission to the university in the fall of 1962. His powerful denunciation of the racial status quo and his attack on the politics of conformity eventually led to a self-imposed exile after the publication of his best-selling book, Mississippi: The Closed Society.
Born in Rochester, New York, on 28 June 1907, Silver moved with his family to rural North Carolina at the age of twelve. The move had a profound impact on the socially awkward youth. He felt his outsider status keenly in this new place, and the search for acceptance by friends and colleagues became a recurring theme in his life. At age fifteen he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received a bachelor’s degree. He found a job as a schoolteacher in Tennessee, took education courses at Peabody College, and later entered graduate school at Vanderbilt University, earning a doctorate in history in 1935.
He began teaching at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1936 and thrived in the low-key, amiable atmosphere of the sleepy southern school. Despite his heavy teaching and administrative load, he enjoyed the collegiality of his fellow faculty members, found time to fish and play cards, and traveled abroad on teaching assignments and fellowships. Nevertheless, Silver in many ways remained an outsider in the hidebound society of rural North Mississippi. Though he and his wife, Margaret McLean “Dutch” Thompson Silver, had the obligatory African American “help”—their housekeeper, Thera—he always seemed somewhat troubled by the relationship and its expected reciprocities. In addition, he possessed a naive ignorance and desire to help, especially in educational matters, that led him to cross the boundaries of race relations in Mississippi. His work with the local African American industrial school, for example, raised eyebrows. By showing even the slightest sympathy for blacks’ attempts at self-improvement and development, he appeared to condemn the system that had put them in such a low place. He struck up a friendship of sorts with William Faulkner, who had put southern race issues into such a painful spotlight in his own writings. Silver, in fact, helped arrange the 1955 Peabody Hotel conference in Memphis at which Faulkner gave one of his few public addresses on race in the South.
Silver’s evolving views on southern social mores created tensions with the university administration and its political supporters. Known primarily as a scholar of the Old Southwest and the southern home front during the Civil War, he found intriguing comparisons between the Mississippi of the 1850s and that of the 1950s and early 1960s—specifically, the disturbing atmosphere of political repression and the drowning out of all voices of opposition. In September 1962, when Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi resulted in a riot, Silver was dumbfounded by the lack of leadership at the state level. He made a point of befriending Meredith at the university, ruffling more feathers by lunching with him in the cafeteria and by inviting him to play a round of golf on an Oxford course.
The following November Silver let forth a blistering criticism of Mississippi in his presidential address to the Southern Historical Association. The expanded version of his speech, The Closed Society, was released in June 1964—the day after the disappearance of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In The Closed Society Silver argued that at certain points in its history, Mississippi leaders demanded consensus and would not allow dissent and debate, primarily on issues of race; moreover, he accused the state of lacking “the moral resources to reform itself.”
The speech prompted state officials to launch an effort to fire Silver from the university despite the fact that he held tenure. In addition, Silver found himself harassed, threatened, and ostracized. Fearing for his family’s safety, he chose to leave the University of Mississippi and accept a position at Notre Dame. In 1969 he moved on to the University of South Florida, where he taught until his retirement in 1981. Silver chronicled his story in a 1984 memoir, Running Scared: Silver in Mississippi.
Nearly two decades after leaving, Silver returned to Oxford to donate his papers to the university, delivering a well-received speech. He died on 25 July 1988. In September 2011 the university honored Silver by naming a campus pond after him and by holding a symposium on his impact on the school and the state.
- Charles Eagles, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (2014)
- New York Times (26 July 1988)
- James W. Silver, Mississippi: The Closed Society (1964)
- James W. Silver, Running Scared: Silver in Mississippi (1984)
- James W. Silver Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi
- “UM Tribute Set for Professor James W. Silver,” http://news.olemiss.edu/um-tribute-set-for-professor-james-w-silver/ (26 September 2011)