Remembering Kenneth M. Shilman
(August 16,1942, to September 7, 1989) 


"Buses are a-comin', oh yes"

By Howie Levy

I learned only in September 2003 of the passing  14 years earlier of my friend and high school fraternity brother, and our classmate, Ken Shilman.  Ken last resided in in or near San Francisco, California, where he died in 1989 from cancer at the age of 47, which was undiagnosed during a long period of suffering. Ken never married.

Despite his size (he was 6'5", mostly likely the tallest of all our classmates), in high school, Ken was an extremely soft-spoken, unassuming and gentle fellow, gangly and anything but outspoken or opinionated. In fact, for a man so large, he was almost invisible and so quiet that many of you may not even remember him.


  "They're rollin' into Jackson, oh yes." 

I knew little about Ken's life after OHS except as I have been able to research for this page. What little I do know about Ken, however, may surprise many of you. And I am proud to have been his friend.
Beginning in the spring of 1961, our quiet, unassuming classmate became actively involved in the nation's civil rights movement. When he watched television coverage of the assaults on the early Freedom Riders, he and his best friend, Joseph McDonald (OHS '58), were  moved to hitchhike to Montgomery, Alabama, and join others on a bus ride from there to Jackson, Mississippi. You might have read about Ken in a newspaper in June 1961 (see below) when he was arrested in Jackson and imprisoned in the dreaded Parchman State Penitentiary where prisoners were invariably treated brutally. 



The two photos above are of Ken being taken away with others in a paddy wagon following his arrest in Jackson, Mississippi, June 2, 1961. These two photos are from film obtained from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and featured in a remarkable, triple Emmy-winning* 2-hour PBS documentary called "Freedom Riders," which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first ride, which can still be viewed in its entirety (or a copy can be purchased) online at


2011: (1) Outstanding Picture Editing, (2) Outstanding Writing (both for Nonfiction Programming), and (3)
     Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking



Immediately above is an Associated Press (AP) photo that shows Ken with his co-Freedom Rider and best friend, Joe McDonald (center) as they were escorted by authorities out of the "colored waiting room" at the Trailways bus station, just prior to entering the paddy wagon under arrest. Joe McDonald and Ken are featured in Richie Woods' second book, Legendary Locals of Oceanside.

Below is Ken's official mug shot from that June 1961 arrest:



Below are AP photos of Ken and Joe taken in Joe's backyard in Oceanside as they were being interviewed (according to Richie's book) by the New York Times on June 26, 1961, after  they returned from Mississippi.


Following is an AP syndicated article about Ken as it appeared June 21,1961, in a Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper (and many others): 


According to the accounts in Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, by Timothy B. Tyson, and  in
The Making of Black Revolutionaries, by James Forman, in August 1961, after picketing in Monroe County, North Carolina, Ken was arrested with others, charged with inciting a riot and jailed again.

Soon after these experiences, Ken joined the Young Socialists Alliance (YSA) and in 1962, worked as a hospital workers union organizer in Brooklyn. The YSA was an independent socialist youth group whose leadership, among other things, was appalled by racism and, therefore, sympathetic to the rapidly escalating civil rights movement. It was loosely aligned with the Socialist Worker's (communist) Party in which Ken later became a party leader for the rest of his short life.     

Who could have predicted that our gentle giant, Ken Shilman, would become a passionate and lifelong idealist  dedicated to social causes, that he might become a civil rights activist and done something so extraordinarily brave and incredibly selfless as to have risked his life as a Freedom Rider and then to become an American communist party leader?

You can read a little about Ken and a lot about what he was passionate about in both Freedom Riders 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault and in other sources accessible from a Google search or from the extensive online bibliography at

For a recorded interview specifically about Ken's civil rights activism, visit also

You can read a little more about Ken and a lot about socialist causes Ken was passionate about in The Party: A Political Memoir. Volume 1: The Sixties by Barry Sheppard.


Classmates and other visitors are invited to submit material for a special
memorial page like this for any other departed classmate. Just e-mail it to me.



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