Anne Moody and Coming of Age in Mississippi: Civil Activism and the Generation Gap

Sometimes you read a really great book and you take away so much from it that you just want to share with others what you’ve discovered. That is what this is…a discovery of what Anne Moody shared in her autobiography and what I took from it.

Anne Moody grew up in what was the most turbulent and violent period for African Americans after the Civil War. Born on September 15, 1940, Moody witnessed, directly or indirectly, some of the most senseless crimes to occur within the state of her birth. Mississippi, a state that was possibly the hardest fought for change in its attitude toward African Americans, was arguably the most turbulent of all of the southern states. For example, the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was rejected by Mississippi for ratification on December 5, 1865, and was not officially ratified until March 16, 1995. One could argue that the state of Mississippi was the longest hold out for ratification because of their deep-seated hatred of African Americans, hatred that would show itself through horrifying violence during the years Anne Moody was “coming of age.” Although Moody focuses her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, almost exclusively on herself, the reader is able to discern the differences between Moody’s generation and the generation of her mother. Work and college experiences, coupled with witnessing the fear and actions of her own mother, caused Moody to become a woman on a mission in order to bring about change within the African American community.

Change occurred slowly within Mississippi because generations of African Americans viewed political activism from two different perspectives. For Moody’s mother, Elnire, the activist actions of her daughter were dangerous and out of step with the ways in which African Americans had survived the harsh realities of Mississippi before the turbulent 1960s. Elnire, born in the 1920s, experienced the Great Depression and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan while she herself was coming of age. She grew up in a time when African Americans stayed to themselves, took the jobs they were allowed to have, which were usually jobs in field work or in service for the whites of the community, often the same families that owned their ancestors, and, more often than not, for very little pay. Elnire lived her entire life in fear of whites and that fear motivated all of her decisions. There were rules of conduct between African Americans and whites and death was the penalty for stepping out of line. Her fear of whites was deeply rooted within Elnire and within her society. Elnire was equally intimidated by lighter skinned African Americans as she was by whites. Because of her personal experiences, Elnire never stood up against the racially motivated and unfair treatment perpetrated against her by the extended family of her second husband or the whites within her community. Moody witnessed the inability in her mother to stand up for herself and, although she loved her, she seemingly grew to have less and less respect for her mother over the years. The education Moody learned at home by watching her mother as an African American within Mississippi society would add to the anger that would catapult Moody into her Civil Rights activities.

Anne Moody was born fifteen months before America became involved in the Second World War. Additionally, she was deeply affected by the murder of fifteen year old Emmitt Till, who was the same age as Moody at the time of his murder. The murder occurred in a county within close proximity of Moody’s childhood home and had a profound impact on her. That impact would grow into an absolute hatred of whites in the south. Till had been accused, tried, and executed by the husband of a white woman he allegedly whistled at when leaving a store a couple days before his murder. Till’s punishment for getting out of line with a white woman was compounding proof for Elnire to stay in her place with the whites or suffer the same fate. For Anne Moody, however, the anger she felt over Till’s murder only fueled her hatred of whites and the conditions under which she was growing up. Hatred, more than any other contributor, set the stage for her later activism.

As a child, Moody was highly insightful as to what she needed to do to ensure her life would not end up as her mother’s had–living a fearful life as a sharecropper and raising nine children in poverty or in service to whites. Moody used this aspect of her mother’s life to her benefit and worked to prove how she was different from her mother. In order to deal with her life’s struggle of avoiding her mother’s mistakes, she did not engage in physical relationships with boyfriends lightly. Moody saw the inability of her mother to keep from having children to be a form of oppression. She became a first-hand witness to the fact that every time Elnire had a child the poverty she lived in became more difficult to pull herself out of. Moody makes it clear throughout her autobiography that she resisted whatever she had to in order to keep from ending up in any condition similar to the one in which her mother existed.

Moody’s hatred of whites, initially, and then the poverty she grew up in set the stage for Moody to become a Civil Rights activist. She had watched as her parents worked from sun up to sun down as sharecroppers, barely earning enough money to live and forcing the family into poverty. When she reached school age, it was poverty, again, that threatened her ability to go to school. Moody focuses heavily on the need for school clothes and food to eat in regards to her experiences with school. Without these two basic necessities she would not have had the opportunity to attend school, which was an activity where she excelled. Her need to feel as though she was in charge of her destiny is evident in Moody’s words about school. Being the best student in class and school was a driving force within her that she would carry into her later activist work. Her success as a student set her apart from other African American students and adults as well. Moody’s drive not to allow herself to be “held down” by anyone, whether it was another student, a teacher, a white person, a boss, a co-worker, poverty, violence, or shame was strong within her. Her actions and decisions exemplified this completely. The ability to attend school and the opportunity to become educated was never made available to Elnire and may have contributed to the differences in the way the two women looked at social activism in the 1960s.

In her early years, work was an extension of school for Moody. On the surface, she worked to gain money for her family. The money went to ensure that she and her siblings were able to attend school and to eat while there. More important than the money she earned, Moody lets the reader witness how she was educated in many different ways by those for whom she worked. Seemingly, with each family she worked for, the anger grew within her as racial prejudice also grew toward her. Moody expresses how much she desperately wanted to understand the racial inequality that engulfed her world. Some whites were kind and educated her; others educated her in a manner intended to teach her where African Americans should remain within society. The details of her time as an employee of Mrs. Burke are the most telling of this. Mrs. Burke told Moody the way it was based on her own racist perceptions, but always to inform Moody that she had a place and that she should not step outside of it.

The relationship between Mrs. Burke’s son and Moody is another view of the generational differences between those growing up in the fifties and sixties and those who were adults during the same time. Because Moody was a good student, she was acceptable as a tutor for Mrs. Burke’s son. Moody points out that it seemed to bother Burke that a Black girl was smarter than her own son was. The friendship that the two teens shared, however, was the sticking point for Mrs. Burke. Race was an issue for the elder Burke, but not for the younger. It seemed that the two youths were looking at the world through different lenses than their parents. Teens, whether white or black, were questioning the reasons why they could not interact with each other, in spite of their physical differences.

Once in college the work that Moody engaged in was always just the means to an end. She still utilized her time on the job as a way to learn more about the world around her, to questions the status quo and to earn the money to take her to the next step in her life. It became acceptable to get involved in political activism for Moody when she made it to Tougaloo College and had the opportunity to stand up against what was happening to African Americans within the society. Moody could have worked as an activist anywhere, but she chose to get involved and stick it out in Mississippi. Because her work and college experiences had continued to make her feel oppressed prior to attending Tougaloo College, Moody found the power to stand up against her oppressors in the Civil Rights movement. Although she was critical of many of the attitudes and actions of those Civil Rights leaders that were on the national scene, she remained focused. Moody continually tried to get African Americans to get up, and to get out, to vote so that they could empower themselves to change their own society and the actions taken against them by whites. This was something she herself was actively trying to put into practice. Making the decision to be a part of the sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter, Moody saw the hatred and racism of Mississippi society. She allowed herself to be placed within harm’s way for her principles and Moody sat down because of her strong belief in the need for societal change. The resistance she exhibited to the rules of white society was her way to be the absolute opposite of her mother and stand up against the white oppression that her mother always gave in to.

Throughout the book, Moody demonstrates the differences between herself and her mother as two people governed by two opposing ideals based on the experiences they had as they came of age within their individual generation. Elnire believed whole-heartedly that stepping outside the white societal rules was foolish and deadly, but Moody believed that staying within those same societal rules was equally foolish and deadly. Once she got to Tougaloo College Moody believed that if the African American community could come together, they could do what was necessary to change their futures. This was evident to her because of the success the youth in the sixties were having within the Civil Rights movement. Moody was always struggling in her attempts to get her fellow African Americans to come out and vote, but she was really fighting against the deeply rooted fears and beliefs of her mother’s generation. Moody argued that she could not get them to simply get up and help themselves. It was clear that she did not understand that their fear was powerful even as insightful as she was about so many aspects of her life. She herself did not make the connection between the fear felt by those within her community and her own experiences. Moody felt tremendous fear, the kind of powerful fear that can debilitate a person, when the KKK came looking for her one evening because of her activism. Moody and her friends laid motionless, hiding, in the tall grass across the street from the house where she spent time with her fellow activists until it was safe to leave and to go home.

The period in which Anne Moody came of age was a time to stand up and to fight oppression. Because she grew up angry, she did not fear the same things her mother feared. Elnire feared death at the hands of the whites who oppressed her, but Moody feared the acceptance of that oppression more than the white society and the threat of death did not deter her activism. Becoming educated, whether through school, her jobs, or her experiences in college, all absent from her mother’s life, made Moody determined to never live under the strain of white oppression, even if it meant her own death.

6 thoughts on “Anne Moody and Coming of Age in Mississippi: Civil Activism and the Generation Gap

  1. Very interesting article, Mel…but they always are. I’ve just started reading a book about a gentleman who was a pow in WWII…an era I know that also interests you. The 50s and 60s were an interesting time to grow up in…I know, I did!

  2. I have to write an essay on this book. It was good to get your perspective. Thanks for posting. The students during the 30’s and 40’s and throughout Anne’s time really had a profound impact on the civil rights movements. There were the freedom riders in addition to the sit in’s. It is such a shame that today’s culture doesn’t even have a clue in regards to all the sacrifices of the previous generations before us. All of the stories are amazing. This was a very inspiring book to me.

  3. Love “Coming of Age in Mississippi.” It’s such an iprtant book. I find myself re_reading it many times. I only wish Ms. Moody did more interviews in her adulthood to share her point of view on life in the US decades after the movement. She seems to have been a very private person.

    1. Hi Andrea,

      Yes, I too, wish Anne Moody would give an interview. Her life was hard and her experiences very powerful and life changing for her and so many others. I bet she has written a follow up, but we may never get to read it. Thanks so much for the comment.

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