Anne Moody’s 1968 memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, is a tremendously important book, particularly now when some people deny that police violence against African Americans is a pervasive problem and when the Black Lives Matter movement has become a favorite target of the angry right. This book is searing reminder that the tradition of state-sanctioned violence against people of color was a real thing that hasn’t just faded away. To the contrary, it rears its ugly head again and again, sometimes in the context of unduly violent and selective policing and sometimes in the context of racial barriers to voting, aka gerrymandering and voter ID requirements. Of course this is an incomplete list, but whether these events are viewed as isolated or systemic, their effect is profound.
In the context of Coming of Age in Mississippi, incidents of racial violence against people of color aren’t individual, unrelated events. They are more properly viewed as a continuum that cost people their lives. In Anne Moody’s Mississippi any African American who spoke up risked his or her life.
Coming of Age in Mississippi brilliantly captures the fear, the rage and the inexplicable courage of a young African American woman in Mississippi in the very early 1960’s. Anne Moody didn’t come from an activist family. Her family was extremely poor, her parents were separated, her mother kept having children and there was no thought of getting ahead or fighting injustice. Moody bitterly resented her circumstances from the very beginning and she refused to accept them.
As a young child, she experienced the dangers young children faced when both parents were forced to work and there was no safe child care. As a young girl, Moody took on whatever work she could find. Her most painful job was working for an incredibly racist and threatening white woman, who denigrated Moody in every way possible and yet hired her to tutor her dim-witted son and his friends.
There were lynchings in Moody’s town, and people were driven away if they didn’t kowtow to the status quo. It was an ugly, dangerous environment. To really think about what Anne Moody experienced every day as a child frames the discussion of why the Civil Rights Movement came to be and why there seems little reason to forget and move on when racism remains so pervasive and when racism seems to be attracting new defenders on a regular basis.
Anne Moody is so interesting, because she didn’t just accept her lot. She refused. She got out of town and ultimately was introduced to the Civil Rights Movement where she found her calling. Moody was an heroic activist, but she was no saint. She was really angry and her book tells us why. It also provides an intense reminder of why racism was and is such a big deal, and why expecting people to “get over it” makes no sense. When people and their forebears have lived through the horrors of the Jim Crow South, why would anyone expect them to just be grateful that things are a bit better now? Why should anyone be content with things being a bit better? As someone recently noted, why should anyone be expected to forgive and forget slavery when the South keeps celebrating its Civil Ware generals and their victories and while the Confederate Flag still hangs too many places?
Finally, the strength of Anne Moody’s account is that it is unfiltered. She wrote her book in her twenties and only a few years after her lunch counter protests, her jailings and her voting registration drives. She isn’t particularly reflective. She just writes about what she is feeling and what she experienced. She doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to understand why others were less bold. She bitterly resents her family’s efforts to stop her, even as she acknowledges that reports of her activism got back to her home town and threatened her family’s security. She is even angrier at the ministers who gave lots of noble speeches and sermons, even as they personally tried to avoid going to jail. Moody, on the other hand, felt that going to jail was a necessary sacrifice and was quick to contrast brave school children who went to jail with the ministers who seemed happy to send them there, but didn’t want to go there themselves.
Anne Moody might have been a tough person to know, but she was heroic. This is a great book. The subject is fascinating, and it really advances our understanding of what it meant to be an activist in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.