Coming of Age in Mississippi
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Coming of Age in Mississippi is a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody about growing up in rural Mississippi in the mid-20th century as an African-American woman. The book covers Moody's life from childhood until her late twenties, including her involvement in the civil rights movement, which began when she was a student at the historically-black Tougaloo College. It details her struggles both against racism among white people and sexism among her fellow civil rights activists.
Structure and content
The book is divided into four sections. In the first section, entitled "Childhood," Moody remembers her later years amid the grinding poverty of rural Mississippi. The opening section of the autobiography concludes with her recollection of her first calculated act of resistance to the southern racial codes.
Her political awakening begins during her teenage years, and Moody chronicles those years in the book's second section, "High School." During her first year in high school Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy visiting Mississippi from Chicago, is lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His murder is a defining moment in Moody's life and in her political education. For the first time she realizes the extent to which many whites in Mississippi will go to protect their way of life and the appalling powerlessness of the blacks to challenge the existing arrangements. Their helplessness is manifest in their fear: when Moody asks black adults for information on the circumstances of Emmett Till's murder, she is told to shut up. When she asks her mother for the meaning of "NAACP" (referring to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), her mother tells her never to mention that word in front of any white persons. Shortly thereafter Moody discovers that there is one adult in her life who could offer her the answers she seeks: Mrs. Rice, her homeroom teacher. Like Mrs. Bertha Flowers in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Mrs. Rice plays a pivotal role in Moody's maturation. She not only answers Moody's questions about Emmett Till and the NAACP, but she volunteers a great deal more information about the state of race relations in Mississippi. Moody's early curiosity about the NAACP resurfaces later when she attends Tougaloo College.
Entitled "College," the third section of the autobiography reveals Moody's increasing commitment to political activism. During her second year at Natchez College, she helps organize a successful boycott of the campus cafeteria when a student finds a maggot in her plate of grits. It is Moody's first experience in organizing a group of individuals to launch a structured revolt against the practices of an established institution. While a junior at Tougaloo College she joins the NAACP. The third section ends with Moody's recounting of a terrifying ordeal in Jackson, Mississippi. On a shopping trip there with Rose, a fellow student from Tougaloo College, Moody – without any planning or support mechanism in place – decides to go into the "Whites Only" section of the Trailways bus depot. Initially the whites in the waiting area react with shock, but soon a menacing white mob gathers around the two young women and threatens violence.
The fourth and final section of the autobiography, "Movement," documents Moody's full-scale involvement in the struggle for civil rights. In the opening chapter of the final section Moody narrates her participation in a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson. She and three other civil rights workers – two of them white – take their seats at the lunch counter. They are, predictably, denied service, but the four continue to sit and wait. Soon a large number of white students from a local high school pour into Woolworth’s. When the students realize that a sit-in is in progress, they crowd around Moody and her companions and begin to taunt them. The verbal abuse quickly turns physical. Moody, along with the other three, is beaten, kicked, and "dragged about thirty feet toward the door by [her] hair" (266). Then all four of them are "smeared with ketchup, mustard, sugar, pies and everything on the counter", (266). The abuse continues for almost three hours until they are rescued by Dr. Beittel, the president of Tougaloo College who arrives after being informed of the violence. When Moody is escorted out of Woolworth's by Dr. Beittel, she realizes that "about ninety white police officers had been standing outside the store; they had been watching the whole thing through the windows, but had not come in to stop the mob or do anything" (267). This experience helps Moody understand "how sick Mississippi whites were" and how "their disease, an incurable disease," could prompt them even to kill to preserve "the segregated Southern way of life" (267). In the chapters that follow she comments on the impact of the assassinations of Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy on the civil rights movement, the escalating turmoil across the South. The short final chapter ends with her joining a busload of civil rights workers on their way to Washington, D.C. As the bus moves through the Mississippi landscape, her fellow travelers sing the anthem of the civil rights movement: "We shall overcome" (384), and she questions herself as to whether they really will be able to overcome.