Anne Moody, well-known black native Mississippi author, has written biographical works depicting life in Mississippi and the struggles of black people in the South. Her books provide a history of what life was like in the South before and during the civil rights movement. Born Essie Mae Moody, in Wilkinson County, Mississippi on September 15, 1940, to Fred and Elnire (Williams) Moody, she was the oldest of nine children. Moody’s father left the family when she was young. Her mother supported the family with domestic work and restaurant jobs. As a child, she attended segregated schools. She attended Natchez Junior College, where she became in involved in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She completed her education at Tougaloo College.
Moody worked in Canton, Mississippi, for more than a year with CORE, to assist with the registration of black voters. As an activist, she faced threats of violence and was put on the Ku Klux Klan’s blacklist during this period. From 1964 through 1965, Moody served as the civil rights and project coordinator at Cornell University. Moody married Austin Stratus and had one child named Sascha. In 1969, her marriage ended in divorce.
In 1968, Moody wrote her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Based on life in her home town of Centreville, Mississippi, it is an articulate and moving account of the often frustrating struggle of growing up black in the south. She recalls the succession of shacks in which her family lived. She aptly describe the hunger, the prejudice, the black apathy, and the beginning of racism. She writes about racism from a child’s perspective. Instead of focusing on her involvement in the civil rights movement, Moody chose to start at the beginning, when she was four years old. She was the child of a poor sharecropper, working for a white farmer. She provided a startling depiction of what it was like to grow up a poor, southern African American.
Moody thought of herself as a civil rights activist more than an author. Moody has won many awards and honors for her literary accomplishments. Coming of Age in Mississippi received the Brotherhood Award from the National Council of Christians and Jews and the Best Book of the Year Award from the National Library Association, both in 1969. She also received the silver medal from Mademoiselle magazine for her short story “New Hopes for the Seventies.” Moody’s other work includes Mr. Death: Four Stories. Moody also has sound recordings of her book of short stories in Mr. Death and her short story “Bobo.” During her career, she worked hard as a civil rights activist and worked for the Congress of Racial Equality. Anne spoke and participated in many civil rights activities like the famous Woolworth luncheon sit-in and the March on Washington (“I had a dream”). Reverend Edward King and Anne Moody had a close professional relationship. In 1972, Moody was the artist-in- residence in Berlin, Germany. Anne worked at Cornell University later as a civil rights project coordinator. She now lives in New York where she continues to write and serve her community as a Counselor for New York City’s poverty program. Today she remains a more private citizen and rarely does interviews. Moody’s works have interested people throughout the world. Scholars continue to read these books as historical references because Moody’s writing allows people to feel and understand the conflicts that were occurring.
Coming of Age in Mississippi, is the story of Anne Moody and her life in a racist time period. Anne describes the plantation life as that which will haunt her for the rest of her days. Anne’s father left the family when she was a young child. Anne’s mother takes on the role of wage earner. Their family moves from place to place trying to make a living. Anne enters the work force at an early age in an attempt to help the family. Through her interactions with employers, she begins to gather a clear message of racism and the inferior role of blacks in the south. At this point, she doesn’t view whites as enemies and sees how blacks may be contributing to their own demise, considering themselves second class citizens.
Having to work in the cotton fields, where she is sure she will die, Moody determines this will not be her life. She desires something better. She believes following in the footsteps of her family will lead her to a life of poverty. She begins to challenge the system. She refuses to follow the path that has been laid out and sets in motion a tense relationship between the role that society has given her and the path she will choose for herself.
One of her first experiences with racism, a world of color, occurs in the movie theatre. “Every Saturday evening Mama would take us to the movies. The Negroes sat upstairs in the balcony and the whites sat downstairs. One Saturday we arrived at the movies at the same time as the white children.” The children were eager to see each other. Her mother recounted her place in society and told her “Essie Mae, um gonna try my best to kill you when I get you home. I told you ’bout running up in these stores and things like you own ’em!” she shouted, dragging me through the door. When we got outside, we stood there crying, and we could hear the white children crying inside the white lobby. After that, Mama didn’t even let us stay at the movies. She carried us right home.”
When Anne enters high school, she discovers how extensive racism is in her community. She realizes that she is working for one of the most racist individuals within that community. Shortly before her freshman year begins, a black boy named Emmet Till, is killed by a lynch mob, for allegedly flirting with a white woman. At 9:30 P.M. on June 16, 2000, the body of Raynard Johnson, a seventeen-year-old black man, was found hanging from a tree in Kokomo, Mississippi. Although the coroner’s report cited no evidence of foul play, and county officials later ruled the hanging a suicide, local blacks were convinced that Johnson had been lynched because of his open relationship with two white girls.
Anne begins to despise the environment in which she is living and decided she must leave her hometown. She approaches her teacher, who informs her about the NAACP, but cautions Anne not to discuss their conversations or she would lose her job. Anne’s teacher does lose her job, and Anne becomes disgusted, “I was sick of pretending, sick of selling my feelings for a dollar a day.”
Anne travels to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to work during her freshman summer. But work is hard to find. Her first job, working for a poor white woman, ends when her employer leaves town without paying her. She then begins work at a department store where a coworker undermines her and gets her fired. She returns home to learn that a couple is forced to leave town over an interracial affair. When she asks her mother about this, her mother becomes angry that she even speaks about it. Anne decides that she will leave Centreville as soon as she finishes high school.
Anne returns to her position with Mrs. Burke. She struggles with her own feelings versus the feelings of her family. Her mother becomes angry when Anne is short with Mrs. Burke. Anne has a conversation with Mrs. Burke on the subject of school integration. Anne shares her beliefs and Mrs. Burke becomes enraged. After being accused of stealing Mrs. Burke’s wallet, Anne resigns her position. With the approval of her family, she goes to New Orleans to work.
She decides that she needs to see what is happening in the rest of the country.
Her junior year, she returns to Centreville. A man by the name of Samuel O’Quinn is murdered on the suspicion that he is a member of the NAACP. Anne states that they need to fight back. “I hated myself and every Negro in Centreville for not putting a stop to the killings or at least putting up a fight in an attempt to stop them,” she writes. She becomes more of a loaner than she had been before. She retreats from her family. Angry with Raymond, Anne throws a tantrum, and her family locks her out of the house. She goes to live with her father and his wife.
Anne finishes the year at a different high school. When she graduates in 1959, she observes that her ceremony will take place in a large segregated county high school, and though it is new and many people are grateful for it, she thinks of “how dumb we were to accept it” because a new segregated black school is nothing more than a gesture to preserve white supremacy. She sees her family at graduation and agrees to visit her mother before leaving to work for the summer.
After graduation, Anne returns to New Orleans to find work. She isn’t earning a decent wage and learns that she is eligible for a scholarship. She is accepted at Natchez College, a conservative, religious college in Natchez, Mississippi. She feels like a prisoner in this environment but is forced to continue due to a lack of funds to go elsewhere. She continues her outspoken nature and forms a dining hall strike after maggots are found in the food. Despite the trouble she causes, the President of the school helps her pursue a scholarship at Tougaloo College, the best college in the state for blacks.
Anne is fearful of attending Tougaloo, as she has heard it is mainly pale-skinned, wealthy blacks that attend there. She is surprised to learn that students of all colors get along. Upon learning that one of her roommates is secretary of the NAACP, she joins right in. She becomes so involved in rallies and activism that her grades begin to suffer. She begins working on black voter registration.
During her senior year at Tougaloo, Anne receives a letter from her mother, discouraging her involvement in the participation of civil rights activities and states that she won’t be able to return home if she keeps it up. ‘‘Why was I trying to get myself killed? [Momma] kept asking. What was I trying to prove?’’ Moody reports that her mother pointed out the uselessness of trying to change racial givens in the South: ‘‘Over and over again she said that after I was dead things would still be the same as they were now.’’ Her mother’s request only serves to fuel her fire and make her fight harder. During her last week of school for the year, she participates in a Woolworth’s sit-in that is timed to coincide with a demonstration. The sit-in grows violent and Anne and fellow participants are verbally and physically abused. Anne realized that she was going against her mother’s wishes and began to understand that she would need to distance herself from her family, for their safety.
Anne continues to demonstrate against discrimination at rallies and protests. Her family continues to beg her to stop her activism. She continues to push for the black vote, but blacks are discouraged. ‘‘How could Negroes be so pitiful? How could they just sit by and take all this shit without any emotions at all? I just didn’t understand.’’ Anne travels with Reverend King and his wife to the March on Washington in August, 1963. She fears the Reverend is too idealistic in his efforts. She begins to help the black effort in other ways. She assists in providing food and clothing, so that the fear of losing work and poverty can no longer be an excuse for blacks to avoid pursuing civil rights. She continues to be frustrated at the lack of progress.
The work that she does takes its toll on her. She is fearful of harassment and needs medication just to sleep. Escalating white violence against blacks is accelerated as black leaders and innocent women and children are slain. An Alabama church is bombed and children killed.
She begins to wonder if she has made a difference.
One of the most important and recurring themes is the destructive power of prejudice. There is the prejudice of whites against blacks, and also the prejudice of lighter-skinned blacks toward darker-skinned blacks, and of people with money against poorer people. Anne experiences each kind of prejudice, which causes her great pain. In fact, being the victim of prejudice tends to prejudice Anne herself against whites and lighter-skinned blacks. Her prejudice is demonstrated by the fact that she nearly refuses to attend Tougaloo College, the place where she joins the civil rights movement, because she fears that it has too many light-skinned black students. She also distrusts her professors because they are white, and the Reverend Edward King, who is, worse yet, a southern white. Finally, after meeting lighter-skinned blacks and whites who do not look down on her, Anne accepts that not all members of these groups are untrustworthy. However, prejudice nearly costs her important opportunities in her life.
Moody’s life was shaped by the time she lived in and her resistance to the oppression placed upon blacks. With each struggle she encountered she fought back harder. The struggles that affected her most, were not her own personal struggles, but those of blacks within her community, such as the death of Emmet Till. In the 1940s and 1950s, prior to Moody joining the Civil Rights Movement, blacks lacked many of the basic rights. They were denied the right to an equal education. They were relegated to low paying, low status jobs. Despite the violence that occurred to blacks, beatings and murders, the police force did nothing to stop these crimes and often participated in them.
“Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me – the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. I knew once I got food, the fear of starving to death would leave. I also was told that if I were a good girl, I wouldn’t have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn’t know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough, I thought.”
Joining the Civil Rights Movement was never a question for Moody, despite the lack of support and even estrangement by her family. She was angered by the injustice that occurred within her own community and even further angered by the lack of response of blacks. She often felt a lack of progress being made within the Civil Rights Movement. She worked to assist blacks with voter registration, but blacks refused to register because they had been threatened. There was apathy among the black population because they had accepted the status of second class citizens. The black population was often angered by the Civil Rights Movement because they believed it placed all of them in jeopardy. If one black speaks out, they (white supremacists) will come after all of them.
Anne Moody was a dedicated servant of the Civil Rights Movement. She worked to protect future generations from the horrific treatment that she and others in her community had endured. Even after being arrested, abused and humiliated, Anne Moody continued to fight. She would have moments of resignation, but her will would return and her voice grow stronger. She continued to be plagued by the lack of response, not only within the black community, but everywhere and with all people. She did not see this as a fight for “black” rights but as a fight for “human” rights. This fight for human rights should be fought by everyone and for people of all colors and races.
Blacks had been given full voting and citizenship rights after the Civil War, but with the exception of a brief period immediately following this conflict, many southern African Americans were unable to enjoy these rights for close to one hundred years. Moody was born into a world that was one ruled by whites. The racial oppression that she describes was part of southern society, where a white man could kill a black without provocation and claim self-defense.
After serving the Civil Rights Movement for more than a year, Moody questions the effectiveness of a non-violent protest and their ability to bring about real change. She ends her story in remembering all the bad things that have happened: ‘‘the Taplin burning, the Birmingham church bombing, Medgar Evers’ murder, the blood gushing out of McKinley’s head, and all the other murders.’’ She recalls her friends, the Chinns, the first African Americans in Canton to welcome the CORE workers. On this last day, Mrs. Chinn tells her, despite all the work they have done in Canton, ‘‘things are even worse than they were before.’’ Mr. Chinn, who has ‘‘sacrificed and lost all he had trying to get the Negroes moving,’’ is now locked up with a chain gang. She wonders if Mrs. Chinn is right when she says, ‘‘This ain’t the way. We ain’t big enough to do it by ourselves.’’ On the bus to Washington D.C., the other African Americans begin singing ‘‘We Shall Overcome,’’ but Anne is left with the following words that echo in her head: ‘‘I wonder. I really wonder.’’