In the early 1960’s on Sunday nights, two of Oxford, Mississippi’s most prominent intellectuals met together. One was Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner and the other was history professor Dr. James Silver. There was much that could have engaged their attention and conversations on those Sunday evening meetings. They could have discussed literature and Southern history late into the night. Mississippi was in the beginning throes of the Civil Rights Movement, and Faulkner and Silver were both vexed over Mississippi’s brewing troubles.
Students of Faulkner and Southern history, especially those who have read Professor Silver’s books, might long to know what occupied the attention of Oxford’s most progressive thinkers. As it happens, we can know what their focus was. Faulkner, being something of a contrarian in many ways, would not have a television in his house. But he was willing to watch one show at the home of his friend and fishing companion, James Silver. On Sunday nights, there was a show called “Car 54 Where Are You?” This show was a comedy featuring two bumbling policemen. This was not social satire or profound wit, but was slapstick comedy like the Three Stooges.
The source of this story in Faulkner’s life comes in a footnote at the bottom of a page in a book called Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkner of Mississippi by Dean Faulkner Wells. Dean, named after her father, was Faulkner’s niece. After Faulkner‘s brother Dean died in an airplane crash, William Faulkner stepped in to help raise his niece. She called her uncle “Pappy,” just like Faulkner’s own daughter called him and lived with her famous aunt and cousin in Oxford. In her memoir, she said that when Pappy laughed, “it was through his nose in subdued snorts.”
Despite those pleasant evenings together, Faulkner and Silver did share much concern over Mississippi’s racial problems. Faulkner was not overtly political. His books, particularly Go Down, Moses, The Sound and the Fury, and Intruder in the Dust, were subtle, slow penetrating knife thrusts into the racial sins of the South. Like his Southern ancestors and contemporaries, he eschewed Federal interference into social and local matters. Unlike the segregationists, Klansmen, and many of his neighbors, he abhorred the mistreatment of people due to their skin color.
Since Faulkner died in 1962, one can only speculate what he might have said, done, or written on what was then termed “the Negro problem” as the Civil Rights Movement continued through the decade. His friend, Professor Silver, did live through that era and his actions are well known.
James Wesley Silver was a transplanted Southerner. He was born in Rochester, New York, and was twelve years old when his family moved to North Carolina. Silver went to college at the University of North Carolina and Vanderbilt, where he received his doctorate in 1935. Shortly after that, he began teaching at the University of Mississippi.
His love of history, along with his writing, research, and teaching, focused on the Confederacy. He wrote several books on the antebellum South. These included A Life in the Confederacy (1959) and Mississippi in the Confederacy (1961). His most influential study was Confederate Morale and Church Propaganda (1957). This work is still highly used and regarded in studies relating religious beliefs and support for the Confederate cause.
The early 1960’s marked the centennial of the Civil War. This led to a flood of Civil War books that began to be published. The flood has never stopped. Silver’s main works preceded that time, but students of the war combed his studies for their own studies and research.
Silver’s role as a Civil War historian was eclipsed by the Civil Rights Movement. It was at Ole Miss in Oxford where James Meredith, a black student, became the center of a controversy regarding his attendance at the university. At the height of the uproar, two people were killed in a riot. Silver boldly befriended Meredith. With the college campus surrounded by Federalized troops there to protect Meredith, Professor Silver sat down at a table to eat with Meredith in the cafeteria.
Matters became worse when Silver published a book titled Mississippi: The Closed Society. In a time when the nation was changing, some of the changes were being resisted in the South, particularly if they pertained to the segregation of the races. Silver chastised Mississippi for not having the moral resources to change.
A group known as the White Citizens Council began lobbying for Silver’s dismissal from the college. Threats caused the professor to sleep with a loaded shotgun under his bed. He lost friends.
At least one friend remained constant. Faulkner sent Silver a note saying, “We will not sit quietly by and see our native land, the South, wreck and ruin itself twice in less than a hundred years over the Negro question. We speak now against the day when our Southern people will say: Why didn’t someone tell us this before?”
When an opportunity came along for Silver to teach at Notre Dame in 1965, he took it. A few years later, he returned to the South, this time to the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he taught history until he retired in 1982. He continued living in Florida until his death in 1988.
Before his death, however, he did return to Oxford. In 1984, he delivered a talk at the college and donated his papers to the library. In 2011, the college honored his legacy by holding a symposium titled “Opening the Closed Society” and by naming a body of water on the campus “Silver Pond.”
Teaching history is usually a pretty safe occupation. Silver’s legacy is of a historian who saw the consequences of history and the need to adapt to changes, even when his convictions brought great pressures on him. The weight on his heart and mind must have been heavy during those years. For a short time on Sunday nights, however, with Faulkner’s snorting laughter in the background, James Silver got a little comic relief.
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