A Harvard student from Mississippi was chatting with a doctor's wife in his home town this summer. "Have you read Silver's book?" she asked.
"No, you can't buy it in Mississippi, can you?" he asked in surprise.
"Oh, I smuggled my copy in from New Orleans," she replied. "Whenever I read it, I first put the cover on backwards."
This anecdote is what James W. Silver's book is all about. Silver, a history professor at the University of Mississippi, witnessed the riots there when James Meredith was admitted in 1962. Horrified, he decided to present the facts about the event and to place it in historical perspective. The result was an address before the Southern Historical Association, of which he was outgoing president, and--much expanded--Mississippi: The Closed Society.
His thesis, evident from the title, is that Mississippi has become a closed society with an orthodoxy accepted by nearly all the citizens--at least, the white citizens--of the state. Mississippi's institutions, Silver maintains, cooperate in enforcing the official doctrine of white supremacy. Non-conformists are silenced or expelled from the community.
Certainly, Silver's book is valuable for its description of the forces which stifle dissent in Mississippi. Its fault is what it leaves out. Mississippi: The Closed Society is all detail and no substance: Silver introduces his thesis, presents an overwhelming mass of examples to back it up, but never explains why.
Although himself a historian Professor Silver fails to discuss adequately the historical forces which produced the closed society. He points out that a political convention called in 1851 to consider secession hooted at "the asserted right of secession" as "utterly unsanctioned by the Constitution." Yet in 1861, Mississippi was the second state to secede. Silver never mentions the reason for this about-face: namely, the passage of political power in just ten years from the small farmers to the rich Delta plantation owners, whose interests have controlled the state ever since.
Silver also fails to emphasize sufficiently the relation between Mississippi's oppressive social system and its economic ills, which make it the poorest state in the country. He does not treat, for example, the problems of the increasing mechanization of agriculture in an area with no cities to offer employment to the growing mass of jobless sharecroppers, most of whom are Negroes.
Nor does he connect the absence of industry, which would accelerate change, with the state's racial unrest, high infant mortality rate, poor education system, and population loss, as enterprising citizens move north to find jobs.
Professor Silver notes briefly the role of the state legislature in enforcing conformity through its laws. Yet he fails to assess adequately the possible impact of political reapportionment or a large-scale increase in Negro voters. He also neglects the rest of the governmental hierarchy, especially local officials like the county sheriff, who form the foundation on which the closed society rests. The State Sovereignty Commission, which investigates subversive activities like civil rights, appears only in a footnote.
Nearly half of Mississippi: The Closed Society is devoted to letters which Silver wrote to friends, relatives, government officials, and the press after the riot. This section is undoubtedly the more interesting, for it contains a detailed description of the riot, Silver's impressions of James Meredith, and a note to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., special assistant to President Kennedy, suggesting that if necessary the President telephone Meredith to plead with him to remain at the university.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the letters is their revealing picture of Silver as a white Mississippi moderate, who feels uncomfortable in the role of civil libertarian.
To an Oregon friend, he writes, "Anyway, I was fed up with the whole damned Negro business and certainly didn't want any more involvement." Of Meredith, he writes, "He and I agree pretty well on the necessity for Negroes to get the rights implied in the Declaration of Independence, but when he gets much farther than that he is likely to lose me."
Silver's loyalty to his state in the face of outside criticism is always apparent. Writing to Time magazine, published in New York, Silver attempts to minimize the exodus of faculty and students from Ole Miss as a result of the riot. Yet, he does not mince words when addressing fellow Mississippians. In a letter written six months later to the Jackson, Miss., Clarion Ledger, he lists 39 faculty members who have left and adds, "Scores of our most talented students will not return in September."
Clearly, James W. Silver is not a radical dissenter from the Mississippi mind but a loyal citizen who attacks his world in order ultimately to preserve it.