Unsung Heroes: Ever Wonder Who Empties Your Trash, and Where it Goes?
Carol Ruth Silver
1964 Civil Rights Intern
Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, Durhan, North Carolina
May 2013

[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]

Thank you all very much for being here, for having not forgotten, for being interested in the stories that we — many of you, and even myself — have to tell. We are talking about the days 50-plus years ago. In those days, we were on the front page, every day, of every newspaper in America, one or the other of us, or some group or other.

We were the Civil Rights Movement.

We were many, many people, some of whom are here (and obviously most of whom are not). But the theme of this storytelling is the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, and so I would like to talk about some of the really, truly, unsung heroes, so far unsung that I don't even have their names.

First, a small introduction of myself. In 1961, I was a Freedom Rider. I was in Mississippi jails for 40 days. I was in Parchman Penitentiary for most of those awful days and — truly awful nights.

And if I can be permitted a little commercial, my book, called Freedom Rider Diary, which was written 50 years ago and has been languishing in a draw ever since, is going to be published this coming year by the University Press of — Mississippi! [Applause]

How did this diary come to exist? After I got out of jail at Parchman, I went to Los Angeles where my family then lived. With the help of my sisters, my mother, and some volunteers, I took the little notes, the things written on the backs of envelopes and scribbled on stolen prison stationery, the papers which I had managed to get out of Parchman, and typed them into a diary manuscript. Having these notes was, by itself, extraordinary, because a lot of people, a lot of my cell mates and other Freedom Riders, had notes also, particularly had diary notes. But for some reason, maybe because I just had them in my hand as I was going through the exit process, the prison authorities did not notice mine, and therefore did not take them away.

So I got my notes out, and in Los Angeles, we wrote them up, original and one carbon-copy, into this loose leaf note book. I tried to get it published, but nobody was interested in it. So I put it away. Later, when the new Xerox technology became available, I made copies. I gave a copy to the Tougaloo College archives, and somebody down there saw it during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Freedom Rides. As a result, it is now in process of being published. [It is available for pre-order on Amazon.com and book signings are scheduled for February of 2014.]

But that is not the history I wanted to tell you about today. Rather, it is about an unsung Civil Rights hero of Durham, North Carolina.

After the Freedom Rides, in the fall of 1961, I started law school at the University of Chicago. For these next three years after the Freedom Rides I organized law students in Chicago to go down to serve the Mississippi Civil Rights lawyers, all Black, and their northern collaborator attorneys, most of them White. They were working in places like Louisiana, Plaquemine Parish, and Jackson, Mississippi. The students spent summers in the south, but when I graduated from law school in 1964, I became the first full-time, full-year intern of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council (LSCRRC). I was assigned to Durham, North Carolina with one of the most energetic Black hero attorneys of the Civil Rights Movement, both sung and unsung, Floyd Bixler McKissick.

McKissick was a lawyer, a successful lawyer in his little town of Durham. He was the biggest shot in the Black community. Floyd was the go-to guy, whatever the issue. He was the person who won cases, whether they be little criminal cases or civil cases involving real estate, representing Blacks only but hugely respected by the local judges, all White. He put all of that on the line  — his family, his business, his real estate, his hard-won status in both the Black community and among local Whites. He put everything on the line to say Yes to the Civil Rights Movement, to agree not only to take the cases, but to take on the first Civil Rights intern in the south.

[In 1966, Floyd McKissick replaced James Farmer as the Head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which he led until 1968.]

And then I showed up. Well, as he liked to say in telling the story, the first two things that he noticed about me were: I was a girl, and I was White. The very fact that I was a female lawyer was extraordinary in those days. There were no female lawyers in the bar in Durham, North Carolina, and had never been. There were only five women in my law school class of 110, so you can understand that this was a bit shocking to the judges, the lawyers, the City Clerk of Durham, North Carolina, that not only did McKissick have a northern intern law clerk, obviously a Yankee troublemaker, but a female.

Floyd McKissick squared his shoulders, pulled up to his full six-foot height, marched into the courtroom and said, "Your Honor, this here is my clerk and her name is Carol Ruth Silver and she's from the University of Chicago Law School." This was before I got my Bar Admission Notification, and when I got the Bar Admission Notification, he marched me on down to the Clerk of the City of Durham, North Carolina and he said, "Mr. Clerk, I want you to swear her in." (California's Bar allowed swearing-in before any clerk of any court and, by gum, that's where I was sworn in, Durham, North Carolina.)

So now I wasn't just a clerk; I was a full-fledged lawyer, albeit from California, and the judges and the clerks and the whole bar apparatus in Durham, North Carolina, were waiting to see if I would do something outrageous. So I suggested to Floyd that we had to solve the problem that the Tobacco Workers Union, AFL-CIO, which represented the biggest industry in Durham, the tobacco manufacturing plants, was segregated — was all White. There was of course a separate Black Tobacco Workers Union, but as was usual, separate was not equal — they had no power, no ability to negotiate with the owners, no recognition. We, of course  — Floyd, myself, the leadership of the Black Tobacco Workers Union, thought it was time for the White TWU to integrate. This idea landed — in a letter from Floyd McKissick, carefully drafted by me to explain the legal reasons why they were required to do it — on the desk of the Head of the White Tobacco Workers Union — like a lead balloon.

And so, despite the fact that national labor unions were among the biggest financial backers of the Civil Rights Movement, and despite death threats and threats of worse than death, I prepared and filed a Petition to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, DC, to decertify the White Tobacco Workers Union, unless they agreed to integrate. This Petition and the litigation which it entailed was totally extraordinary for Durham. Lawyers in Durham, North Carolina had never seen anything like a segregation issue hitting at the fundamental economic life of the town, by going to the Federal Regulatory Agency. Anyway, this lawsuit was later settled, long after I was gone, about four or five years later, and the White TWU was finally integrated.

But what I want to share with you today is the story of the unsung hero who made that success possible. Immediately after we filed the Petition, there were all kinda of preliminary matters that go on in litigation. You have depositions. You have interrogatories. You have investigation. You have negotiations and meetings. As we were working on this litigation, we found we had a secret source of information: every morning, we found, someone had shoved under the door to the office, crumpled pieces of paper — paper that had the logo of the White Tobacco Workers Union on it — arriving mysteriously at the office door of Floyd McKissick's law firm.

At first, we just couldn't figure it out, but we took that information, and believe me, we used it. We called people. We did this and we did that. And one day somebody — probably Floyd McKissick preparing to go up-country to a trial — was in the office really early, like 5:00 o'clock in the morning. And there he met a little old guy, Black, who would not tell his name — because he was the janitor at the White Tobacco Workers Union. Every night, he came in to his work and he swept and he emptied the trash — right into a big bag that he took back to his house and sorted through and found what we might want.

Now, he was barely literate, I think, and he didn't know much about our litigation. But he knew that anything that had the Tobacco Workers Union logo on it was something that Floyd McKissick just might want to see — on its way, of course, to the landfill. And we did. And we used the information we acquired that way. And we loved it.

And — thank you very much, Mr. Janitor without a name: truly, an unsung hero.

Copyright © Carol Ruth Silver, 2013

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