Former S.F. supervisor Carol Ruth Silver recalls being imprisoned as a Freedom Rider

Carol Ruth Silver walked out of a Mississippi prison, a cluster of crumpled papers hidden in her undergarments. Scrawled on those scraps, a secret journal recounting 40 harrowing days jailed for being a Freedom Rider.

That was back in 1961. Silver had made civil rights history, joining hundreds of black and white Americans in defying Jim Crow segregation laws by riding interstate buses into the Deep South — and paying a price for it.

The former San Francisco supervisor (1978-89) is about to make history again, as she publishes “Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison.” The book details the daily misery and solidarity the Freedom Riders experienced while in jail.

Silver, 75, will appear at a book signing and launch on Monday, March 3 at Books Inc.’s Opera Plaza location in San Francisco. By the end of the week, she will have done similar events in Los Angeles and New York.

“I don’t want to take any undue credit,” says Silver, who had tried several times to get her diary published. “I was one of 436, and I did my 1/436 part. But there were 200 million other [Americans] who didn’t come down.”

Only 22 at the time, Silver was part of a second wave of Freedom Riders that summer of 1961. An earlier group had been attacked by a mob in Alabama, their bus firebombed. No one died, but several ended up in the hospital.

The Massachusetts native was set to enter law school that fall, but Silver felt taking part in the Freedom Rides was too important to pass up. She readily attributes her Jewish roots as the inspiration.

“It’s a little trite to say ‘tikkun olam,’ ” she notes, “but there are 618 commandments. Of those, one of the most important to my family when they were raising me is tikkun olam. That means ‘fix it.’ It’s your responsibility to make things right.”

Sponsored by civil rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, Silver and her fellow bus riders received training in nonviolence before heading south. Everyone in their integrated group was arrested upon arrival at the bus station in Jackson, Miss.

Silver spent the next 40 days in jail.

Her diary recounts the harsh conditions, with up to 20 young women crammed into a single cell, with few amenities. The jailers, as she describes them, seemed reminiscent of extras from “In the Heat of the Night,” a hard-hitting 1967 film, and winner of an Oscar for best picture, about a murder in a small Mississippi town.

Carol Ruth Silver

No reading or writing materials were allowed, which made Silver’s secret diary all the more amazing. She hoarded pencil leads, and scraps of paper, recording her daily observations in tiny code to maximize space.

Though conditions were harsh — the creepy-crawlies and oppressive heat took a toll — and they were separated by race and gender, the Freedom Riders maintained solidarity, constantly singing spirituals and civil rights anthems to boost their spirits.

“Like a soldier going into battle, you can’t not be afraid,” Silver says, “but you can’t let fear interfere with doing your job, what you came there to do, as we all did. We were there for a purpose, to make things different and better.”

Silver estimates that nearly half of the white Freedom Riders she knew were Jews, pointing out the longstanding Jewish support for the civil rights movement.

After making bail, Silver returned to normal life, though she did have to return to Mississippi to stand trial. She was convicted with a suspended sentence, though that conviction was overturned some years later.

She went on to get her law degree and embark on a distinguished career as a civil rights attorney. Settling in San Francisco, Silver served three terms as a San Francisco supervisor, under mayors George Moscone, Dianne Feinstein and Art Agnos. She reportedly was an additional target of Dan White, who assassinated Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on Nov. 27, 1978, but was late getting to City Hall that day because she opted to have a second cup of coffee with a constituent.

Bus in the arrival area of the Trailways bus station in Jackson, Miss., in 1961 photo/courtesy university press of mississippi & mississippi department of archives and history

Silver founded the Chinese-American International School, and a charity that promoted girls education in Afghanistan.

In 2011, she returned to Mississippi for the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides, even locating her old cell at the maximum security Parchman Prison (it was on death row, which housed the overflow of Riders at the time). Ten years earlier, she had helped organize a 40th reunion of the Riders.

The lifelong liberal believes society progressed since African Americans were forced to sit in the back of the bus. “But not enough,” she quickly adds.

Of all her many achievements in activism and public service, she ranks her summer as a Freedom Rider up at the top.

“It was a life-affirming, life-changing event for me,” Silver says. “After you get out of jail having been a Freedom Rider, nobody and nothing can frighten you, or tell you that you have to accept injustice. You stood up and said, ‘No.’”

Carol Ruth Silver will appear 7 p.m. Monday, March 3, at Books Inc., 601 Van Ness Avenue, S.F.

“Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison” by Carol Ruth Silver ($35, University Press of Mississippi, 240 pages)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.