S.F. lawyers trip to South revisits civil-rights summers

Carol Ruth Silver cannot forget the signs she saw 34 years ago at the Parchman, Miss., county jail. They read "white," "colored" and "other."

She never quite figured out what "other" meant.

"I think it represented an attempt to classify Asians and Native Americans, but it only resulted in the stupidity of an empty room in their jail. It was monumental in its absurdity," Silver said. "Those signs, they just reverberated with the stupidity of racism.

"I'm not white, I'm pink. Colored? What is that? Green? Blue? If race is the issue, how could one be other than white or colored?"

The building, along with its signs, has been torn down now. That's not all that has changed in Hinds County since Silver's last visit there more than 30 years ago.

Last month, Silver, a San Francisco attorney and real-estate broker, joined about 70 other lawyers — many of them Jewish — in a reunion of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC) back in the place they first fought for civil rights.

The LCDC was formed in 1965 by a group of idealistic law-school graduates like Silver to aid black civil-rights lawyers in the South. Members collected law books, sent money, did research pro bono, interned and organized established lawyers to travel South and offer their expertise.

Thirty years later, it was black lawyers and judges who greeted the attorneys in Jackson rather than the police escorts that once routinely met civil-rights activists at the state line. And instead of working to "make a difference," the attorneys attended seminars discussing how much difference their work has made to economic opportunity and affirmative action for blacks in the South.

"It was a tremendous boost to my sense of accomplishment," Silver said. "As a person of mature years looking back on my life, there are many accomplishments of which I'm proud. But that I spoke up, put my career and my physical being on the line to make society a more just place, is among the more precious of life's accomplishments."

Silver's role in the fight for civil rights began before she accepted a 1964 LCDC internship in Durham, N.C. It dates back even before the hot and humid summer she spent as a Freedom Rider in 1961.

Like many young Jewish activists of the day, Silver first tasted the politics of justice at home.

"My folks were first-generation lefties from the Jewish intelligentsia of Eastern Europe," Silver explained. "The idea of an obligation to heal the world, an important part of Jewish tradition, came from that Jewish intelligentsia.

"Why do it? My mama done told me."

Yet when Silver called her mother in California to inform her of her Freedom-Rider intentions — to help desegregate the South in 1961 — her mother wasn't too pleased.

"I told her I had to do it to be true to her," Silver said.

That summer, when she answered the Congress of Racial Equality's (CORE) plea for Northerners to desegregate the south, Silver learned the meaning of tikkun olam (repairing the world) — from a prison cell.

For 40 days, Silver lived in city and county jails and even the state penitentiary in Parchman. She ate bologna sandwiches and bacon rinds soaked in syrup and shared a holding cell with 23 other women.

Her incarceration began after she and five male divinity students hopped a Greyhound bus bound for Jackson with the express purpose of getting arrested for entering "colored" bathrooms. When their bus arrived, all six riders headed for the "colored" waiting area of the station.

"It was a hot, brilliant day," Silver recalled. "The station was dark. And when my eyes adjusted I saw a room full of white deputy sheriffs.

"The sergeant said to me `Y'all move on.' I said I just wanted to use the restroom. He said, `Y'all are arrested,' for breach of peace.

"I never did get to go to the lavatory."

Instead, Silver found herself in the back of a police car with her traveling companions. Much to their surprise, the officer driving the car was black.

"We congratulated ourselves for being in probably the one integrated police car in the state," she said.

After Silver spent nearly six weeks in jail, CORE raised enough money to bail her out. She recalls with a smile how thin she was when she walked out through the iron gates. "The food was awful," she said. "But the biscuits were the best."

The following three summers, Silver worked for the LCDC in Raleigh, N.C. and New Orleans. She devoted the next five years to "movement" law, working for California Rural Legal Assistance and the Legal Services Program for the Poor in Oakland.

Following stints as director of legal services for the city of Berkeley, legal counsel to the sheriff of San Francisco and member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Silver now splits her time between law and real-estate consulting.

At her office on Bush Street in San Francisco, a poster behind her desk is filled with photos and news clippings chronicling the first 50 years of her life . Now, in her paisley business dress and with hints of graying hair, she seems a long way from the freedom rides and LCDC.

But Silver insists the reunion trip reaffirmed that two things remain the same: the biscuits in the South ("still the best") and her beliefs in social action.

"It's like the quote by Hillel, which I took to be the motto of my life, `If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?' "