Published in 1968, Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi details her journey from a cotton plantation in the deep south to becoming a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. At times heartbreaking and other times inspiring, Moody’s memoir explores how an individual faced with enormous– and seemingly insurmountable –obstacles can become a person that shapes history. Moody’s autobiography gives context to the mid to late 20th century Civil Rights movement in a way that still resonates with young people today. This is why her autobiography is a staple text in many advanced high school and college-level history courses, as well as other humanities and social science courses. Hundreds of thousands of students have read her memoir over the last half century, allowing readers to witness history happening on the level of the individual alongside historical forces operating in the larger economy and society. Coming of Age in Mississippi not only allows us to witness an individual coming of age but also how a subject can forge historical change.

Written and researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD 

Recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins

Transcript for Anne Moody: Context and Conflict in Coming of Age in Mississippi

Published in 1968, Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi details her journey from a cotton plantation in the deep south to becoming a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. At times heartbreaking and other times inspiring, Moody’s memoir explores how an individual faced with enormous– and seemingly insurmountable –obstacles can become a person that shapes history. Moody’s autobiography gives context to the mid to late 20th century Civil Rights movement in a way that still resonates with young people today. This is why her autobiography is a staple text in many advanced high school and college-level history courses, as well as other humanities and social science courses. Hundreds of thousands of students have read her memoir over the last half century, allowing readers to witness history happening on the level of the individual alongside historical forces operating in the larger economy and society. Coming of Age in Mississippi not only allows us to witness an individual coming of age but also how a subject can forge historical change. Today we will be exploring how Moody’s memoir adds context to mid-twentieth century American history generally, and the Civil Rights movement specifically.  

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Sarah

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

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Elizabeth: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars.The American Civil Rights movement has a deep and rich historiography. Today’s episode relies directly on work done by T.J. Boisseau and Tanisha Ford and indirectly on scholars like Danielle McGuire, Jeanne Theoharis and Charles Payne. And of course it relies on Anne Moody’s indelible memoir. Also a word on language: Moody’s memoir is written in the first person and she used words that were acceptable for the day but are not used today to describe Black people. When we are reading direct quotes from Moody’s memoir we will use the words she used, that is Negro or colored,  when repeating her written word. Additionally, although the book does use the n-word periodically, we will never repeat it. 

Sarah: And before we dive in we want to point out that Anne Moody passed away at the age of 74 in 2015 . If she were still alive today (in 2023) she’d only be eighty-two years old. When reading Moody’s memoir, students may feel that her childhood and adolescence were spent in some ancient, far off place but the events chronicled in Coming of Age in Mississippi are actually only a few generations removed from today’s young people.

Elizabeth: Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi explores what it meant to be young, poor, female, and Black in mid-century Mississippi. Upsetting the traditional narrative of the Civil Rights movement that focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the philosophy of nonviolence, Moody’s memoir centers rural Black women as producing historical change rather than as powerless individuals to whom history has happened to. Moody’s memoir pulls together the political, economic, and social history of the Civil Rights movement with developments happening in the United States, allowing readers to perceive history as happening on the level of the individual while centering women of color as subjects of historical change. Readers see the growth of the individual– it is a coming of age story after all– while also exploring larger social, economic, and cultural questions. Moody wrote the book from an intimate first-person perspective, which immerses the reader in a child’s point of view that grows more insightful and sophisticated as the book progresses and Moody ages.

Sarah: Anne Moody was born Essie Mae Moody on a rural Mississippi cotton plantation in 1940. Her family lived in a two room shack on a cotton plantation. Their home had a view of the landowners big white house on an adjacent hill. Although slavery had ended eighty years earlier than the memoir opens, the reality that Moody paints does not seem that far from antebellum days. Evenings were spent on the front porch, watching the electric lights coming on in the landowners house while a young Moody wondered why the lights in the landowners house looked so different from the candles and oil lamps in her own. 

Elizabeth: Moody’s parents worked in the white landowners cotton fields. They left home everyday before sunrise and often came back after sunset. Moody’s Mama, known as Toosweet, often got her seven-year-old little brother George Lee to watch over Moody and her baby sister Adline, while Mama and Diddley, Essie Mae’s father, worked in the cotton fields.

Sarah: A devastating fire, started by George Lee, almost burned down the family’s tiny home because instead of insulation, the inside walls were covered with old scraps of wallpaper pinned to the walls with tacks. Moody recounts that after the fire, her father became distant. Soon thereafter his best friend was killed in a farming accident. Didley became quick to anger and eventually deserted the family by running off with Florence, who Moody described as a “high yellow [woman] with straight black hair…[who] was the envy of all the women on the plantation.” These events all happened about one to two years after the end of the Second World War, so roughly about 1946. 

Elizabeth: Mama, now a single mother with two children and one on the way, moved the family to the nearest small town, where they lived with Mama’s sister Cindy and her family. Cindy had six children of her own and a “mean husband” who Moody recalls got even meaner after they arrived. Mama got a job doing washing and other domestic chores for a white woman who didn’t pay her much but let her take home food leftovers. Later Mama got a job as a waitress, which allowed her to rent a two-room house. The house had no indoor plumbing and Moody recalls that “Mama would carry us out in back of the house each night before we went to bed to empty us.” So let’s just pause a minute and think about the reality that was being poor and Black in rural Mississippi. It was unlikely that you’d have electricity or indoor plumbing, and if you had one you might not have both. 

Sarah: When Moody turned five she started going to school, run half-heartedly by a Black preacher who ran a small school for a few hours each day out of his house. Meanwhile, Moody noticed that her Mama was getting bigger and crying every night. This went on until Mama gave birth to a little boy whom she called James. James’ father was a soldier named Raymond, who was probably fighting in the Korean war. Raymond’s family was light-skinned and didn’t like the dark-skinned Toosweet and her family. Raymond’s mother, Miss Pearl, took baby James away from Mama, using the excuse that Mama couldn’t afford to care for him because she was a single mother with already three children five years and under. Moody remembers that this sent Mama into another angry depression.

Elizabeth: During Moody’s elementary years the family moved six times, always in substandard housing and all in areas where the “colored people” lived. She carefully described most living spaces in the memoir in order to give the reader a sense of the spaces that Moody’s family lived in as well as those domestic spaces in which she worked and her white employers lived. She recalls that it was during her elementary years that she began to understand that “white folks are different than us” as the leftovers that Mama brings home from her new white employer’s kitchen are vastly better than the food they eat at home. Moody wished that her mother had an “all white and shiny” kitchen like her white employer’s, that way she could cook delicious food for Moody and her siblings, instead of only beans. 

Sarah: At the age of nine, Moody got her first job, making 75 cents a day sweeping the porch and sidewalks for a nearby white woman. Moody loved being able to give her younger siblings each a quarter and was proud to earn her own money. However, the white woman she was working for began having her do more and more work without increasing her pay, prompting Mama to make Moody quit the job. Soon however Moody began working for a white teacher named Mrs. Claiborne and started making almost as much money per week as her mother did. 

Elizabeth: The Claiborne’s invited Moody to eat dinner with them every evening after she’d done the housework they paid her to do. This was the first time that Moody experienced kindness from white people, even as it was smothered in paternal advice. Mrs. Claiborne made an effort to show Moody what a balanced meal consisted of, not bothering to realize that Moody’s family couldn’t afford to eat more than beans and cornbread, never meat. 

Sarah: Food plays an important role throughout Coming of Age in Mississippi and Moody often spends full paragraphs describing the food that she or her family ate, and what other people were eating. In good times, they supplemented their diets with table scraps from middle-class white families, and milk or peanut butter but mostly they subsisted on beans and bread. Moody was often hungry and the difference between eating and not eating was always a few cents and a low paid job. 

Elizabeth: Food is representative of the difference in wealth between Blacks and whites throughout the memoir, as when the Moody family survived on a white family’s table scraps or when Mama stole corn meant for her employer’s cows. However, food is also demonstrative of how dependent middle-class white families were on Black labor. Moody comes to the conclusion that white women were just lazy, and didn’t even know how to cook. And when they did, they were horribly unhygienic, like when Moody saw her white employer making soup while the woman was sick and let her snot fall into the saucepan while stirring. Or when Moody witnessed a white woman allowing her cats to drink out of the container of milk that she then sold to Black people. Moody repeatedly uses food to remind readers of the extreme poverty that she grew up in.

Sarah: Meanwhile, Moody’s mother was pregnant again but this time Mama forced Raymond to marry her. The growing family moved into a house that Raymond built next to his mothers house in Centerville, Mississippi. Even though the home still did not have indoor plumbing, Moody and Mama were able to go into town and purchase furniture and wallpaper at the only store that extended credit to Black people. 

Elizabeth: Even as her physical surroundings began to get better, Moody still experienced a lot of unhappiness during these years. Their new house sat next to Raymond’s mothers house and Moody watched as Raymond’s light-skinned family overtly shunned Mama, and Raymond’s inability to stand up against his family and support Mama further angered her. Moody highlights skin-color gradations among Black people throughout her memoir. Lighter-skinned Black people, whom Moody calls “mulatto” or “yellow,” often tried to carve out a higher social status for themselves. However, the fact that so many Black people looked almost like white people showed how racial distinctions were ultimately absurd, since they were socially constructed and had no real basis in physical reality.

Sarah: Moody got a new job working for Mrs. Jenkins, a white woman who insisted Moody call her by her first name, Linda Jean. However, Linda Jean’s mother Mrs. Burke is shocked by how close Moody and Linda Jean are and she tells Linda Jean that she pays Moody too much money. Soon Linda Jean pays Moody six dollars, only half of the twelve dollars she used to pay. Unfortunately, Moody couldn’t complain because her family needed that six dollars. Moody wrote, when she gave me that six dollars instead of twelve “I was so shocked I couldn’t say anything. I just took it and went home. I thought about it a lot and almost didn’t go back. But since we need even that six dollars so badly, I went back [to work] on Monday evening.” Linda Jean’s betrayal was jarring to Moody and she began to see how white people who were nice to Black people would still acquiesce to racist authority when push came to shove. 

Sarah: Moody began to develop a life away from the pain and upheaval that filled her childhood home. She reports on her academic and athletic successes, her popularity with other students and teachers, and her budding sense of herself as both beautiful and intelligent. These are dramatic developments in the memoir and give the reader a glimpse of how different Moody’s childhood is from that of her mother’s. For the first time, Black children were able to attend schools. The benefits that formal schooling provided Moody in terms of literacy, public speaking, community building skills, and self-esteem—all eluded her mother and father’s generation. Thus, we as readers begin to get a glimpse of the generational divide that was taking place in Black families across the South. 

Elizabeth: Moody had to submit her birth certificate to her teacher in order to graduate junior high. When the certificate arrived, it listed Moody’s name as Anne, not Essie Mae. This was totally fine with Moody as she always thought Essie Mae was a good name for a cow, not a girl. And so Essie Mae Moody became Anne Moody. 

Sarah: There weren’t any factories that employed Black men in Centerville, Mississippi and the businesses that hired Black men only hired them for janitor positions. Moody recalled, “The Negro man had a hard road to travel when looking for employment. A Negro woman, however, could always go out and earn a dollar a day because whites always needed a cook, a baby-sitter, or someone to do housecleaning.”

Elizabeth: Because of the measly job prospects for Black men and after two failed attempts at farming, Raymond, Moody’s stepdad, decided to head to California to look for work. Post-war California had a booming economy, bolstered by massive federal defense spending during WWII, which continued throughout the Cold War. However, the fruits of plenty were not available to all and Raymond found disappointment in California too, writing to the family, “Los Angeles is a big city. But jobs are as hard to get out here as they are in Mississippi. And Negroes don’t live as well out here as people at home think.” After this failure, Mama became despondent because she had put all her hopes of getting out of poverty on Raymond’s trip to California. 

A black and white photograph from the 1970s depicting Anne Moody, a dark-skinned Black woman wearing a newsboy cap and a black turtleneck. She is smiling and holding a piece of paper.
Anne Moody in the 1970s. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Additionally, Mama was pregnant again. Moody wrote, “The future looked very dim for us. It seemed as though we were doomed to poverty and more unhappiness than we had faced before. Raymond was out of work again. And again our diet consisted of dried beans and bread…Mama was about to have another baby. She always chose the wrong time to have babies. It seemed as though every time we were encountering a streak of bad luck she shot up. One day you would look at her and she was flat and the very next day seemingly she was in labor…As usual when she was pregnant and times were hard she cried a lot. She cried so now she almost drove us all crazy. Every evening I came home from work, she was beating on the children making them cry too.”

Elizabeth: Throughout high school Moody became more attuned to the racial inequalities all around her as well as the pervasiveness of white racist terrorism. She heard about the brutal murder of Emmett Till from her classmates and asked her mother about it. “Just do your work like you don’t know nothing,” Mama told her. Moody recalled that “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.” She ruminated on  Mama’s advice of “Just do your work like you don’t know nothing,” and understood it was a survival tactic. 

Sarah: However, Moody was still curious, wanting to know more about current events while also fearing what that knowledge might mean for her safety. It’s around this time, so 1955, that Moody’s employer, Mrs. Burke, began to hold “guild” meetings in her home. This was a euphemism for Klan meetings. As historian Linda Gordon has shown, white women were integral to the rise and power of the early to mid twentieth century KKK. Moody overheared the Klanswomen talking about the NAACP. That night she asked Mama what NAACP meant and Mama warned her never to mention “that word” around a white person.

Elizabeth: Instead Moody asked her homeroom teacher Mrs. Rice about the NAACP, who explained that the NAACP was an organization “to help Negroes gain a few basic rights.” Mrs. Rice told Moody that the NAACP was working to convict Till’s murderers and give Black people in the South the right to vote. She invited Moody to her home so that she could discuss the NAACP more freely. While there Moody felt like “the lowest animal on Earth,” after hearing about all of the murders that had been taking place across the South. Furthermore, Mrs. Rice insisted that their conversation remain confidential or else Mrs. Rice could lose her job. And sure enough, by the end of the school year, she had been fired from her teaching position because of her NAACP organizing. 

Sarah: Moody wrote honestly about how her environment produced dark feelings. In stark words she wrote, “I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders Mrs. Rice had told me about and those I vaguely remembered from childhood. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders.”

Elizabeth: Mrs. Burke’s guild meetings increased, and soon most white people in Centreville had joined “the Guild,” aka the Klan. White women were accusing their young black maids of seducing their husbands but Moody pointed out in her memoir that “just about every white man in Centreville had a Negro lover.” Moody observed how white men took advantage of their young Black domestic workers. Because of the power imbalance between employers and employees, older men and younger women, and white and Black Mississippians, the domestics had trouble resisting an employer’s advances. In white Mississippi’s imagination, however, it was the white man who was in danger. The stereotype of the Black woman as an overtly sexual seductress led to Black women being accused of lasciviousness. Like in Centerville, when white deputy sheriff Fox was caught with his young Black maid Bess, it was only Bess’s reputation that was ruined and she was run out of town.

Sarah: The Guild also gossiped about Black men seducing white women but Moody points out there was no possibility of Black men having affairs with white women in the segregated town. Nevertheless, the cultural stereotype of white women as delicate, pure, and defenseless, and the racist image of Black men as aggressive assailants, made these imagined affairs a convenient excuse for white residents to attack Black men. White Southern men’s desire to preserve white women from “competition” meant Black men accused of sleeping with white women were likely to be lynched. In the height of this hysteria, one of Moody’s classmates was kidnapped and beaten by white men, as rumors and gossip swirled through the town after Till’s murder.

Elizabeth: The rumors and assaults finally lead to the burning of a nearby Black family’s home, with the family inside. After her family heard screams and followed the stream of Centerville residents running to and from the burning home Moody wrote, “I almost vomited when I caught a whiff of the odor of burned bodies mixed with the gasoline. The wooden frame house had been burned to ashes. …We sat in the car for about an hour, silently looking at the debris and the ashes that covered the nine charcoal-burned bodies. A hundred or more also stood around…I shall never forget the expressions on the faces of the Negroes. There was almost unanimous hopelessness in them. The still, sad faces watched the smoke rising from the remains until the smoke died down to practically nothing. There was something strange about that smoke. It was the thickest and blackest smoke I had ever seen…Those screams, those faces, that smoke, would never leave me.” 

Sarah: Moody graduated from one of the first large public schools specifically established for African Americans. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, before the Brown decision, Mississippi leaders invested large sums of money in building Black schools in an effort to make separate schools more equal so they could avert possible legal challenges to segregation on the basis of funding discrepancies. In the era of the Brown decision these schools continued to be segregated. As a result, Moody was able to learn from a cadre of Black educated women, even as she called the male principals Uncle Toms. However, her experience was not replicated across the South. Moody was one of only 8 percent of Black children in Mississippi who attended high school in the 1950s.  

Elizabeth: Nevertheless, the self esteem and character building she gained by going to highschool and excelling in both academics and sports developed the empowered sense of self that Moody achieved. However, passages recalling her psychological and moral development and her positive sense of self are often followed by passages that dwell on Moody’s disgust with her mother’s intermittent depressions, low self-esteem, inability to prevent multiple pregnancies and stand up to her emotionally unsupportive husband and his light-skinned family. 

Sarah: Some scholars have taken note of Moody’s conflicts with her mother as highlighting generational gaps between Black mothers and daughters. However, TJ Boisseau argues that we must look at this “generation gap as a very historically specific generation gap that can help explain the rise of the civil rights and feminist movements and the significance of the cultural changes they produced…. Moody’s self authored and empowered sense of self is all the more highlighted by her portrayal of her mother as the exact opposite: a woman crushed by feelings of unworthiness, dependent on others for her understanding of herself, humiliated by employers she cannot afford to stand up to, and unable to control her emotional life or her sexuality. Where her mother obsesses about being rejected by lighter-complexioned relatives and hides from public view, Moody revels in her attractiveness and relishes any opportunity to stand out in school and in her community.”

Elizabeth: A significant portion of Moody’s memoir, roughly 300 of the 400 pages, are devoted to her childhood and adolescence. Often, instructors will gloss over this early part of the book in order to get to Moody’s work in the Civil Rights movement that makes up the last third of the text. By doing so however, readers miss the opportunity to see how linkages between the psychological to the social and the personal to the political are developed. Boisseau argues that “….the dissonance Moody and her mother experience in their relationship highlights the objective conditions of Moody’s “coming of age” that created the preconditions not only for her own personal construction of an empowered self, but also for the larger political movement of which she was a part.” For example,  “the biggest difference between Moody’s childhood or ‘coming of age’ and that experienced by her mother…[was] the apparently wholly rural plantation upbringing of Moody’s mother as it contrasts with Moody’s more urban experiences living in towns and, in particular, her access to public secondary education as making the difference in the empowered sense of self that Moody achieves.”

Sarah: Moody’s talent as a basketball player got her a scholarship to the all-black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. She struggled with  fears of going to school with lighter-skinned Black people. One of her friends warned her before going, “Baby, you’re too black. You gotta be high yellow with a rich-ass daddy.” to go to Tougaloo. Many of Moody’s new classmates were not from rural backgrounds. Nevertheless, many were agitating for full economic rights in the downtown area- such as eating at white lunch counters. Moody quickly became involved in that movement. 

Elizabeth: Thus, the third section of the book begins, titled “The Movement.” As a college student Moody was a participant in the early desegregation of bus stations run by the Committee on Racial Equality (CORE). Through CORE she met many of the movement’s leaders, most notably the charismatic Medgar Evers. Evers was a decorated WWII veteran and was the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi. He was engaged in efforts to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi, end the segregation of public facilities, and expand opportunities for Black Americans including the enforcement of voting rights.

Sarah: Moody guides us through the Movement, allowing readers to understand more of the context of the Civil Rights movement by reading closely and reflecting on what Moody is saying. She writes, “I had found something outside myself that gave meaning to my life.” Throughout Moody’s coming of age story, we’ve seen her try to find meaning in religion, family, work, academics, and boys. Yet none of these aspects of her life had been sufficient and some, like religion and family, have really let her down. The Civil Rights movement gave her the opportunity to improve conditions not just for herself, but for future generations. The Movement gave her an opportunity to define herself at a crucial time when she was still deciding on her life’s path. 

Elizabeth: Moody participated in her first sit-in in May of 1963 at a Woolworth’s in Jackson, Mississippi. She appears in the iconic photo of the three college students and one professor who were showered with mustard and ketchup during one of the first lunch-counter sit-ins in Mississippi. Moody, a black woman named Pearlene Lewis, a black man named Memphis Norman, and later two white women activists- Tougaloo College student Joan Trumpauer and Tougaloo professor Lois Chaffee—among others attempted to subvert Woolworth’s segregation policy by integrating the lunch counter. As the group sat down, and as the white customers became aware of the group’s intentions to integrate the lunch counter, the scene turned violent.

Sarah: The women were pummeled with “ketchup, mustard, sugar [and] pies” by an angry group of whites, mostly male high school students. The crowd began to shout “Communists, Communists, Communists,” highlighting how the second Red Scare, what many call McCarthyism, was used to paint the Civil Rights movement as a Communist plot.  Moody, who was wearing a dress, stockings, and closed-toed heels, was dragged across the Woolworth’s by her hair, losing her shoes in the struggle.  Finally, Tougaloo College officials intervened to rescue the protesters from the violent mob, which had swelled in size after news spread about the events at the store, while 90 police officers stood outside the Woolworth’s and watched.”

Elizabeth: Scholar Tanisha Ford explores the emotional context of this experience for young Black women. Ford notes that having ketchup and mustard on one’s hair and body could be “emotionally overwhelming for black women who had been trained since childhood never to go out with their hair unstraightened. These young activists had been taught, at home and at their institutions of higher learning, to feel and project self-dignity through their grooming routines. Given the history of racist and sexist stereotypes that linked black women’s immorality to a perceived ‘unkempt’ appearance, these teachings held significant meaning for young black women.”

Sarah: Therefore, Ford argues, the barefoot and food-covered Moody’s insistence that she go to the beauty shop and get her hair washed and straightened after the event was not vanity but was a critical part of the movement experience for Black women activists in the early 1960s. Moody writes, “Before we were taken back to campus, I wanted to get my hair washed. It was stiff with dried mustard, ketchup and sugar. I stopped in at a beauty shop across the street from the NAACP office. I didn’t have on any shoes because I had lost them when I was dragged across the floor at Woolworth’s. My stockings were sticking to my legs from the mustard that had dried on them.”

A tall, dark statute of a Black man wearing a suit. Behind him is a blue sky and a green hill. In the distance to the right is the roof of a store.
Statue of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: After the Woolworth’s sit-in, high school and college students demonstrated in the streets and continued to organize sit-ins across Jackson, Mississippi. Medgar Evars led a demonstration, telling the audience that this was just the beginning of such demonstrations and asked the audience to pledge themselves to a massive offensive against segregation in Jackson and across the state of Mississippi. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and CORE organized workshops where potential demonstrators were taught how to protect themselves. Moody taught some of these, explaining how she taught demonstrators to “protect the neck to offset a karate blow, you clasped your hands behind the neck. To protect the genital organs you doubled up in a knot, drawing the knees up to the chest to protect your breasts if you were a girl.”

Sarah: The next day Moody was arrested along with other Black and white people doing a sit-in, or pray-in, at the post office. She spent the next four days in jail, writing that the women’s cell, which she shared with twelve other Black women (they were segregated), “didn’t have a curtain over the shower. Every time the cops heard the water running, they came running to peep.” They fixed it by covering the stall with toilet paper stuck to the edges with chewing gum. 

Elizabeth: Meanwhile four hundred high school students had been arrested and jailed at the county fairgrounds in a large open-air compound with no beds or bathroom facilities. Kids were getting “sick like flies.” Moody writes that “Jackson became the hotbed of racial demonstrations in the South…and most of the Black college and high school students there were making preparations to participate. Those that did not go to jail were considered cowards by those who did.” Moody’s text makes clear the engagement and spirit of the high school and college-aged students who were central to the Civil Rights movement in ways the older generation could simply not understand.

Sarah: Soon news of Moody’s activism had traveled back to Centerville and her family began receiving death threats. Moody could no longer return home- nor did she feel she could have survived there mentally even if it had been physically a safe option.The activists and students with whom she had thrown in her lot had become her only support and considering the chasm that existed between herself and her family, particularly her mother, going back to Centerville was no longer an option. 

Elizabeth: Weeks after the Woolworth’s sit-in, Medger Evers, one of the most radical and charismatic of the civil rights leaders was murdered at his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Moody was devastated by the violence that began to envelop her. Evers murder hit her hard. Soon afterward, she worried that the murder of an uncle back in Centerville happened because of her activism, but she couldn’t rule out that the murder was just another white supremacist act of violence. 

Sarah: It is through this time that Moody began to seriously suffer spiritually, mentally, and physically. She writes about all of the weight she lost and how her hair began falling out. She questioned whether God really existed at all, writing “[s]ince I had been part of the Movement, I had witnessed killing, stealing, and adultery committed against Negroes by whites throughout the South. God didn’t seem to be punishing anyone for these acts. On the other hand, most of the Negroes in the South were humble, peace-loving, religious people. Yet they were the ones doing all the suffering, as if they themselves were responsible for the killing and other acts committed against them. It seemed to me now that there must be two gods, many gods or no god at all.” 

Elizabeth: Soon Moody went to work for CORE in Canton, Mississippi to help register Black voters there. On September 15 Moody learned about the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls. This act of white supremacist terrorism caused Moody to further question the movement’s nonviolent tactics. However, she continued her work in Canton, organizing high school students until the police began to harass the CORE workers on a nightly basis. Soon thereafter Moody found her picture on a Klan blacklist. Most of the people pictured on the list had already been murdered or had left the state. Black X’s covered the faces of Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and other Black people who had been killed. Moody wrote, “this piece of paper shook me up…Most of the people on this blacklist were already out of the state.. [or] had been killed.” She continued, “Most of the people didn’t worry about the daily threats, but making a Klan blacklist wasn’t taken as lightly as that. This meant much more. In spite of the fact that I didn’t want to worry about it, I did.”

Sarah: Moody lamented that “The whites had a disease, an incurable disease in its final stage.” The metaphor of racism and white supremacy as “an incurable disease” helped Moody come to terms with white supremacy as an epidemic, larger than any individual’s racist acts but was deep-seated and ever spreading. She began to think that white supremacy may be “incurable,” and began to doubt that the civil rights movement could heal the disease. Ultimately, Moody wished that the movement would focus on concrete economic improvements in the lives of the rural Black people it purported to help, rather than on voting rights and on symbolic actions such as the Freedom Vote, a mock vote to protest the real vote in Mississippi. Moody began to argue that Black people in the South needed more tangible relief like food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and well paying jobs. 

Elizabeth: In Canton, Moody saw firsthand how “The federal government was … responsible for most of the segregation, discrimination, and poverty,” in the area by only allotting white farmers land to grow cotton on (the state and federal government created ceilings for the amount of cotton that could be produced). She saw how those county allotments allowed white farmers to develop wealth while they kept Black families subordinate, dependent, and poor. This further cemented her belief that the Civil Rights movement needed to address the causes of the systematic discrimination embedded and enforced in government policy. While in Canton, Moody concentrated on tangible relief for rural Black people. She organized a clothing distribution for the poor and tried to establish a program to help blacks borrow money to buy their own farms. 

Sarah: In August of 1963 Moody traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Freedom March. Yet again she was disappointed, “We had dreamers,’” she wrote, “instead of leaders leading us.” Obviously she’s referring to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which she turned away from feeling sick and dejected over the lack of an effective response to white violence and repression. “Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming,” she thought. “Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton [Mississippi] we never had time to sleep, much less dream.”

Elizabeth: Moody’s uncertainty and frustration with the movement only increased as leaders emphasized voting rights for the poor rural Black people in Mississippi rather than poverty relief. In her last passage, she was sitting next to a young high school student on a bus heading back to Washington, D.C. for hearings on the violence in Mississippi. As he sang along with the rest of the passengers the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” she couldn’t shake her deep feelings of despair and pessimism. The boy turned to her and asked, “Moody, we’re gonna get things straight in Washington, huh?” Moody writes, “I didn’t answer him. I knew I didn’t have to. He looked as if he knew exactly what I was thinking…I WONDER. I really WONDER.”

Sarah: And there she ends her memoir. Anne Moody left the movement in 1965. She was in her mid-twenties. She spent the next two years in New York City writing her memoir, which was published in 1968. At the time Moody was writing Coming of Age in Mississippi, MLK was still alive. Her critique may have been intended to affect King and adherents of nonviolence. However, by the time the book went to publication in 1968, King was in fact pushing for a change in direction in the movement, with his focus on the Poor People’s Campaign and his critique of the expense of blood and treasure in the Vietnam war. King was murdered while rallying striking workers in Memphis, Tennessee that same year.  

Elizabeth: Moody married Austin Straus, an NYU graduate student in 1967. She gave birth to a son, Sasha Strauss in 1971. The family lived in Berlin from 1972-1974. Upon her return to New York she wrote a sequel to her autobiography, entitled Farewell to Too Sweet, which covered her life from 1974 to 1984. In 1975, she released a collection of short stories entitled Mr. Death: Four Stories. Moody and Strauss divorced in 1977. Moody worked as a counselor for the New York City Poverty Program and worked on an unpublished book entitled The Clay Gully.  Because she refused to do interviews and stayed out of the spotlight, she was mostly absent from early histories written about the Civil Rights movement. In the 1990s she moved back to Mississippi, though according to her sister Adline she never felt at ease there. She passed away in 2015 under the care of her sister.

Bibliography

Boisseau, TJ. “Always in the Mood for Moody: Teaching History through Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi.” Feminist Teacher, Vol. 24, No. 1-2 (2024): 18-31.

Ford, Tanisha C. “SNCC, Denim, and the Politics of Dress.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 79, No. 3 (2013): 625-658.

Gordon, Linda. The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition. Liveright, 2018.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Ruth. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Harvard University Press, 1993.

McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. Vintage Press, 2010.

Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. Delta Trade paperback edition, 2004.

Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. University of California Press. 2nd Edition. 2007. 

Span, Christopher M. From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi. University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Theoharis, Jeanne. A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Beacon Press, 2019.


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