The United States during the mid-twentieth century is often described as being a time of conformity and compliance. However, it also represents a time when the seeds of rebellion were being planted within American society. As these seeds began to grow, so did the African-American civil rights movement in the United States.
Even though African-Americans had been granted their freedom following the Civil War and even gained the right to vote, they were still treated as second-class citizens, especially in the South. Anne Moody’s memoir, “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” portrays her life experiences and the troubles she faced growing up in Mississippi before and during the African-American civil rights movement.
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Moody begins her memoir by reflecting on her rough childhood around when she was four years old. Anne lived in a two-bedroom shack with her mother, father, and younger sister on a plantation owned by a white man known as Mr. Carter. Many other African-Americans also lived on this plantation, and like Anne’s mother and father, they were sharecroppers. Sharecropping is defined as an agricultural system in which a landowner allows a tenant to use and live on their land in return for the tenant’s labor. Following the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, sharecropping became increasingly popular as a legal substitution for slavery.
Sharecropping represented one of the few options for newly freed African-Americans to support themselves and their families in the Jim Crow South. Anne states that none of the shacks owned by African-Americans on Carter’s plantation had electricity or indoor plumbing. Like all the African-American sharecroppers living on Carter’s plantation, Anne and her family lived in impoverished conditions. Anne’s parents would spend their days working in the fields from dawn till dusk.
While her parents worked in the fields, Anne’s eight-year-old uncle George watched over Anne and her younger sister Adeline. George constantly beat and tormented the girls while he watched over them. One day, George was playing with matches and burned the house to the ground. He told Anne’s father that Anne had started the fire, and she received a harsh beating. “Daddy must have beaten me a good ten minutes before Mama realized he had lost his senses and came to rescue me.” (10)
Anne’s father begins a gambling habit and eventually has an affair with a lighter-skinned African-American woman named Florence. Anne’s mother moves the family off of the plantation and eventually settles in Centreville. By the time Anne is in fourth grade, she begins working after school to help support her family. Even though much of her free time is being spent working, Anne manages to excel in school, begins to play basketball, and is even elected homecoming queen. Despite the hardships she faced during her childhood, Anne is not discouraged.
As an African-American child growing up in the South, Anne is clueless about why white people are seen as superior to African-Americans and eventually realizes that there is no good reason. In part two of her memoir, Anne is entering high school and first learns of the death of Emmitt Till. Emmitt Till was a fourteen-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was visiting Mississippi. The boy allegedly whistled at a white woman and was lynched because of it.
The news of this infuriates Anne and sparks her political awakening. “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.” (132). For the first time in her life, Anne becomes fully aware of the racial and unjust world that she lives in. She begins to feel hatred towards white people and hates that most African-Americans seem helpless in challenging the status quo.
Anne then first hears about the NAACP. In her search for answers concerning the murder of Emmett Till and the NAACP, she finds that no one is willing to talk about it. Finally, Anne can talk to her teacher, Mrs. Rice, about the events surrounding Emmett Till’s death, the current racial situation in the South, and even learn more about the NAACP. At this point in Anne’s life, she is beginning to contemplate social and political activism.
In the third part of her memoir, Anne attends college and deeply explores her spark for political activism. After a student finds a maggot in their food, Anne organizes a boycott of the school cafeteria. This is her first effort in organizing a group of people to reach a common goal. While in college, Anne also joins the NAACP. Anne’s mother disapproved of her wish to join the NAACP, especially after the local sheriff warned her mother that Anne’s involvement in the NAACP would mean trouble for the family. Undeterred by the warning, Anne becomes increasingly active in the NAACP and the civil rights movement.
In the final section of her memoir, Anne describes her experience of participating in the famous sit-in at Woolworth’s counter in Jackson, Mississippi. Anne and three of her fellow civil rights activists sit down at the counter and are denied service. As they continue to sit at the counter, they begin to be harassed by a group of white people. The verbal harassment soon turns physical. Anne states, “I was dragged about thirty feet towards the door by my hair,” and that they were soon covered with “ketchup, mustard, sugar, pies, and everything on the counter” (291).
What Anne said bothered her the most was that when they left the sit-in, about ninety or so policemen were outside watching the chaos through the windows without ever intervening. This experience helps Anne to understand how sick Mississippi whites are. “They believed so much in the segregated Southern way of life; they would kill to preserve it.” (292). Despite the hardship that she faces, Anne is still determined to make a difference in the fight for civil rights. However, she is skeptical about whether or not African-Americans will ever overcome racial prejudice in the country. Her memoir ends with the statement, “I WONDER, I WONDER.” (424).
I thought that this book was an enjoyable read. It was interesting to read an account of someone who had experienced the hardships of growing up as an African-American in the South during American history. I also enjoyed her narration of the famous sit-in at Woolworth’s counter in Jackson, Mississippi. This sit-in had been mentioned in some of my previous history classes, but this was the first time I had a chance to read a first-hand account of what happened.