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Carol Ruth Silver, inspired to ‘make things right’

Mugshot of Freedom Rider Carol Ruth Silver after her arrest in Jackson Miss. (Missisippi Department of Archives and History)

Cedar Goslin
The Broadside

Carol Ruth Silver said when her obituary is written, it will say that she was a Freedom Rider and served three terms as an elected official in San Francisco. It might also say that in 1961, she changed the world.
Now, in 2012, Silver is still working to change the world.
Silver and others decided that the battle for racial equality didn’t belong just to African Americans. When she heard that the Congress Of Racial Equality was going to sponsor the Freedom Rides, Silver knew she had to go, even though her mother feared she might be killed. Though, it was Silver’s parents who inspired her. She described them as being “completely committed to every good cause you could imagine.”
“I said to her ‘how can I not do this, when it is you who have taught me that it is my responsibility, and everyone’s, to repair… the world as we know it?’” said Silver.
Her inspiration, she added, came from an ancient Jewish commandment that means “to make things right.”
“In order for me to have a world that is right for me to live in,” she added, “it is necessary for all people to have an opportunity to live in a righteous world.”
A righteous world takes work to obtain.The Freedom Rides were met with hostile and frequent violent opposition, and as a white woman, Silver was sometimes singled out for racial insults.
The onslaught of verbal abuse was something Silver and her fellow riders often had to deal with when coming in and out of bus stations or entering new towns.The riots got so violent, Silver said it was a relief to get arrested for disturbing the peace.
“I felt like once I was in the hands of the police I might be subject to injury by the police,” she said, “but, not the mob violence. In some ways, we were being protected by being arrested.”
Though Silver herself was never injured, she knew that it was a possibility. All  freedom riders were required to write out their wills before leaving home. Even knowing that she could be injured or killed, Silver said that giving up was never an option for her.
“We had thought through the fact that we were going into danger,” said Silver. “When danger appeared in the Freedom Rides, we were ready for it.”
The Freedom Riders committed to remain peaceful, regardless of how much violence they encountered.  Otherwise, the movement she added, would have lost its meaning.
“It gives you the high moral ground,” Silver said, “and if you don’t accept that ,you’re seen as no better than those you’re protesting against.”
The Freedom Rides were successful, according to Silver, not only in remaining peaceful, but also in accomplishing its original goals.
Silver’s mission to “make things right” didn’t end with the Freedom Rides; since then she has been politically and socially active as a lawyer, politician and social activist. Silver served three terms on San Francisco’s board of supervisors, which was spurred by her belief that the government has a responsibility towards change.
“When you feel you have something to contribute… when called, it makes it difficult to say no,” said Silver.
Silver still feels she has something to contribute to the world. She’s an active member of “one laptop per child,” an has been working over the last 10 years to encourage and enhance the education of girls in developing countries. These efforts are sometimes met with resistance, but that’s nothing she isn’t used to.
She has spent her life as an activist for social change, because Silver always felt it was her responsibility as a citizen and as a human being. She hopes that’s the message that students attending the presentation at Central Oregon Community College will walk away with.
“Just as it was my responsibility then, it’s their responsibility now… I was no more a hero than they are today,” said Silver.
She’s confident in the abilities of students to rise to those responsibilities and achieve the same kind of social change that the Freedom Riders achieved.
“I am totally a believer in the young American people today,” said Silver.
She said she sees evidence daily of people trying to make a change, which according to Silver is a positive sign, because “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

(Contact: cgoslin@cocc.edu)

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