On 4th May, 1961, a courageous group of activists, later known as the Freedom Riders, set off on an arduous journey during which they would protest the segregation laws of various states. Beginning in Washington, D.C. they headed for the South aboard two buses, their ultimate destination New Orleans, but en route they were met with harsh resistance. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed, while riders on the other were brutally beaten in Birmingham. Before long, the news inspired many others to join the Freedom Rides—hundreds of people, black and white, who chose to risk their safety to challenge unjust laws. One such person was 22-year-old Carol Ruth Silver, who spent forty days in prison for daring to enter a Mississippi bus station waiting room marked ‘Colored.’ This was her diary entry on the day of her arrest.
The Diary Entry
Wednesday, June 7, 1961
The ride through Tennessee and Mississippi was relatively uneventful. Two police cars fell in behind the bus at the Mississippi border and, sometimes joined by more, followed us all the way to Jackson.
As we drove through the city, all traffic was cleared ahead of our bus by police stationed in the intersections. We six Freedom Riders waited until everyone else got out of the bus before we held hands, said a prayer, then debarked from the air-conditioned bus into the hot, bright sunshine. For a few moments we were alone on the platform with the bus driver unloading luggage—three Negro divinity students from Virginia Union University, two white men of God from Yale, and a nice Jewish girl from New York.
In the shadow of the terminal I could see many uniformed police, a few men with cameras and notebooks, and some bus drivers. We shook hands with each other and moved forward to our destinations—the Negroes to the waiting room marked “white waiting room intrastate passengers” and the whites to the door marked “colored waiting room intrastate passengers.” As we started walking in, a grinning reporter came up and asked if we were the Freedom Riders and whether our names were correct on his prepared list. “We were told there was a white woman in the group, but that she would probably not go through with it.” “Well, that certainly did not come from me,” I replied and passed by him into the waiting room designated for Negroes.
Inside, our reception committee consisted of more police, all of them white, all armed, all looking terribly serious. I saw no Negroes or regular passengers in this waiting room. The whole thing, the elaborate preparations, the guns, the deadly serious police, contrasted sharply with the almost holiday-like, victorious mood in which we had been riding on our bus, traveling through the South, based simply on the fact that we had not been met by a mob with clubs, at least not yet.
A police officer stepped forward with great determination. “Move on!” he said. John Gager, our unofficial spokesman, replied, “We just want to get some coffee,” and I at the same time piped up: “I just want to use the restroom, please.” “Do y’all refuse to move on?”
John: “Yes, sir.”
“Then y’all are under arrest.”
The police too, like the UPI reporter, had merely to verify our names on a typed list. The Negro students, who had obviously been subjected to the same treatment on the “white intrastate” side, joined us in the paddy wagon, and we rode to jail together. Someone said gleefully, “I bet this is the only integrated public transportation in the state of Mississippi.” At the jail, we gave our names and our personal information, then our pictures were taken, full face and profile, with numbers on little wooden signs hung around our necks. Our fingerprints were made and our possessions and eyeglasses taken away from us.
The whites had been taken first while the Negroes were ordered to “stand back.”
The formalities over, I quickly shook hands with my companions and was conducted to a cell door labeled “adult white females.” Over other doors I could see other labels—“juvenile Negro males,” “adult white males,” and, mysteriously, “other adult males.” The “adult white females” door opened and then closed behind me with a deafening metallic clang.
Carol’s full diary was published by University Press of Mississippi in 2014, titled Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison. Vivid, compelling, and historically invaluable, it’s a must-read. Huge thanks to Carol Ruth Silver.
- Carol is a fascinating woman who later served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors alongside Harvey Milk. More on her at Wikipedia.
- Wikipedia also has a very thorough and informative page on the Freedom Rides.
- In 2011, the surviving Freedom Riders—Carol included—gathered for a 50th anniversary retrospective hosted by Oprah Winfrey. You can watch that 40min show in full on YouTube.
- There’s a great book about the Freedom Riders, written by Eric Etheridge and titled Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, which includes interviews with, and photographs of, the participants. It was published in 2011.