|Moody (front right, facing the camera) and her companions endure the abuse at the Woolworth's sit-in protest, Jackson, MS.|
Anne’s Moody’s memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi is a powerful insight into the life of a young girl growing up in the Deep South during the Civil-Rights Movement. Moody’s book chronicles her coming of age as a woman, and perhaps more importantly, it chronicles her coming of age as a politically active black woman. Her childhood and early years in school set up a foundation for her racial awareness and her need to be extraordinary. She built upon that foundation as she went to college and sowed the seeds of political activism. During her later years in college, Moody became active in a number of organizations dedicated to making changes to the civil rights of her people. These events eventually led to her disillusionment with the effectiveness of the movement despite her continued action.
One of Moody’s first references to racial awareness occurred when she was four years old. As a child, Moody’s family lived in a cabin on a plantation. Both of her parents worked as field hands and were forced to leave Anne and her little brother at home. One day Anne’s uncle, who was but a few years older than her, was bitterly taking care of her. He attempted to scare her with fire and he accidently lit the house on fire. The house all but burned to the ground. This event had a devastating effect on the family. Anne’s father Diddly left for a young fair-skinned mulatto woman named Florence. Anne noted her mother’s hatred for the other woman in terms of race. She remembered the woman distastefully described as “yellow,” followed by strings of colorful expletives (3-19).
This event points out how early Moody’s unique perspective on race began to form. It is apparent that Moody’s mother had strong feelings toward others who were not of the same race as herself. Florence was of mixed race, and Anne’s mother saw her light complexion as a sign, and perhaps a reason, for her negative qualities. Anne remembers her mother’s use of racial labels despite her very young age. Though at the time she was much too young to understand the real implications of these thoughts and words, she remembered them. She was exceptional. Something inside her told her this event was significant, and only later would she fill in the gaps about why.
Anne’s racial awareness t\was largely influenced by the events of the summer of 1955. A young African American man named Emmett Till came to Mississippi from Chicago to visit family. He stopped at a store to purchase some things, and on the way out he allegedly winked and whistled at a white woman. As a result, a mob pulled him from his home and brutally beat and lynched him. News of the events spread across the country. This lynching had a massive influence on Moody. Until this event, Moody had never really seen the dramatic disparity between whites and blacks. She now feared for her life, and she understood that it was simply because she was black-skinned (127-37).
Emmett Till’s murder marked the beginning of Anne’s path toward activism. Anne’s new understanding of the plight of black Americans, stemming largely from this single incident, would act as a foundation for the rest of her ideology to build upon. Were it not for a major event like this, Anne may not have developed some of her powerful ideological changes as she grew older. Her more radical decisions, made later in life, would not have been made without her strong ideology. Her entire life would have been different, and many of the Civil-Rights-related events she was involved in would have been different. Thus, Moody’s reaction to this single event may have had a massive effect on many people.
In some ways Anne’s coming of age as a teenage girl led to her coming of age racially. As she entered high school, Anne began growing physically as fast as she did mentally. She outgrew her skirts and was forced to wear jeans to school, which was somewhat gauche according to the standards of the time. She continued to grow and her jeans became rather tight, after which the boys began to pay her much attention. As a result of her maturing physique, Anne’s popularity grew so much that she was chosen as Homecoming Queen. Anne’s father got enough money together to purchase her a beautiful gown to wear. Moody described this night as the best of her life (200-21).
This event that signified Moody’s move from girlhood to womanhood set the precedent for her need to be racially exceptional. Moody loved to feel special and different. Anne had a new found confidence after this event. She honestly believed that she could do anything. Moody never showed much fear, even as a little girl, but the reservations she did have as a girl largely disappeared after her homecoming. She became more resolute and determined to do what she desired, and that resolution would reveal itself during college and beyond.
During high school Anne was heavily involved in the girls’ basketball team. She worked very hard and became a star player. Her efforts on the court paralleled her efforts in school. She maintained very high grades, and as a result of all her hard work she received a scholarship to play basketball at Natchez College. Anne became even more firm in her beliefs than before. When the students were eating their grits for breakfast they found maggots in them. Moody attempted to go back into the kitchen to talk to them about it when Miss Harris stopped her and told her to sit back down. She refused, and told her it was her business because she too had “to eat this shit!” Thus began the students’ heated boycott, largely led my Moody (253-58).
The boycott at Natchez was one of Moody’s first signs of political activism. Up to this point in her memoir, Anne had been willing to stand up for her beliefs, but not in a political way. In this instance Anne acted on the racial awareness by understanding the need for equality and fairness to all, even to lowly students. She was willing to stand up, rather powerfully, and defend her rights. This small-scale political activism gave Moody a taste for the movement, and may have been a major effect in her choice to join the movement a short time later.
While at school Anne decided that she would be content to live the life of an activist. She wanted to try and make a difference in people’s lives, and she felt that her race needed help more than anyone. After transferring to Tougaloo College, she became involved with the SNCC, or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The SNCC was concerned with forming protests to desegregate public and private establishments. With this group, Moody attended a sit-in at the Woolworths Department store in Jackson, Mississippi. The Woolworths sit-in was one of the most violently attacked sit-ins of the 1960s, and it received a lot of media attention around the country. Anne and a group of other students simply went to the lunch counter of the white establishment and sat down. Soon dozens of people flooded into the store. Anne decided they should pray, and as they bowed their heads a group of people rushed them. A number of men involved were badly beaten, and the girls were beaten and harassed as well. Onlookers dumped condiments and drinks all over them. After a few hours of torment the store owner closed up shop and everyone was forced to leave. As Anne left the store, she saw that ninety police officers were standing at the window watching the entire thing (286-90).
Anne’s experience at Woolworths made her hatred for segregation even stronger, and because of her personality and experience, it gave her more motivation to fight against it. Moody said she was absolutely sickened by the people of Mississippi. They believed so strongly in segregation that they would humiliate and physically beat people simply for asking to be served at a lunch counter. They would literally kill to preserve their so-called balance. At this moment, however, Anne’s perspective changed. The white people were sick, she decided. They had a disease, and she felt that she could not hate a sickness. This experience was the beginning of her disillusionment with the effectiveness of the movement. What chance did they have against a sickness? How could they fight a sickness that was in its terminal stage? Moody offers no answer (290-91).
Moody became fully involved in the Civil-Rights Movement. She was present at the March on Washington when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As she sat and listened to Dr. King speak, she realized that the movement had no leaders, for their leaders were only dreamers. Back home in Mississippi they had no time to sleep, let alone dream (333-36).
In this passage Moody began to doubt the effectiveness of the current movement. This was a passive movement, similar to that of India when Mahatma Gandhi led his people to an effective passive revolution. Unfortunately, a passive movement would not work in America’s Deep South. The movement, in Moody’s mind, was not focused on the things that would make the biggest difference. They were focused too much on voter registration and mock-elections. Moody thought the movement would be much more effective if they did things to help bring about progress now. They should do things like help black farmers buy their own land. That, to Moody, would be a real, tangible change that would have a lasting effect. Despite all this, she knew that she could never leave the movement, because there was just too much work to do (333-37, 373-77).
Anne Moody was remarkably racially aware. From a young age, Moody felt something different about race relations than those around her. She developed into an intelligent, strong-willed young woman with a desire to make changes to the racial landscape in the South. For years she worked tirelessly to help bring about those changes, but eventually she became disillusioned. She knew who she was, and she knew that she needed to help make a difference, but she did not know if she could. She closed her book with a bus ride to Washington, where the group would try to sway Congress toward desegregation. The group began to sing We Shall Overcome. Moody thought to herself this question: “I WONDER. I really WONDER.” (424)