The University of Mississippi dedicated a monument today to professor James Silver, near where he lived on faculty row. This was a commendable project of law professor John Robin Bradley.
James Silver was a history professor at Ole Miss from the 40s into the 60s. He became nationally known when, after the Meredith crisis, he wrote a bestseller called Mississippi: The Closed Society.
Because of the public positions he took between the Brown desegregation decision and Meredith’s time at the University, state political forces and the Institutions of Higher Learning board attacked Silver. The University administration did not defend him. He was one of several faculty members who were very important to the intellectual life of the university community who either were forced away (law professor Bill Murphy, law dean Farley), or stayed and faced a pretty horrible fate, with both them and their family ostracized by the university community (political science professor Russell Barrett).
It was a very bad time for Ole Miss, with the powers of the state intent on hurting the university, and the administration either powerless to prevent the damage or implicit in compounding it.
As a part of the monument dedication, there was a panel discussion about Silver. In the introductions, Curtis Wilkie began talking about the current chancellor:
Dan Jones has come under pressure from the same sort of mentality [that pressured Silver]. Then, we had the anonymous Rebel Underground. Now, we have Forward Rebel.
The Rebel Underground was a vile anonymous newsletter, supported by the Citizen Council, that expressed the most segregationist line about the Meredith crisis.
Dr. Jones echoed these remarks, and noted that “now, we don’t have poor judgment institutionalized.”
Later, the closing speaker, Edwin Williams, who was editorial page editor at the Charlotte Observer for decades, noted that Dr. Silver had him read W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South. Williams quoted a passage about how the issue of slavery made white southerners view any dissent as wrong, a moment for circling the wagons and excluding anyone who disagreed.
This all resonated in a whole range of complicated ways for me.
First, it is pretty close to appalling to compare what is happening here-and-now to what folks like Silver went through. No, there is no comparison to what happened to the few heroic figures who said the right thing during the Meredith crisis to the disagreement between one power structure (the administration of the University) and another (whoever it is behind Forward Rebels).
Second, that quote from The Mind of the South really captures the wagon-circling occurring on both sides. The quickness with which everyone seems to leap to “you are with us or against us” is a complete enemy to public discourse.
Honestly, to an extent, I don’t much care what happens to Pete Boone, or to the football program. Sure, I would like to lose the feeling that part of the problem was outright incompetence by administration or coaches, but I’m much more concerned about the university proper and academics, and have no doubt that those issues are in good hands with our current chancellor.
But some of the public prounouncements really seemed calculated to dismiss dissent as out-of-bounds, and that’s a truly bad thing.
If we are a family, then we need to be prepared to listen to everyone.