Anne Moody’s The Coming of Age in Mississippi is not an easy book to read and certainly Ms. Moody did not have an easy life. She captures it with a somewhat ramshackle approach, which I appreciated because it read like someone recounting memories and impressions, rather than a carefully plotted reflection. Her parents were tenant farmers in Mississippi and she grew up in extreme poverty. They regularly ate just bread or just beans and her hunger throughout childhood certainly is a driver in her decisions going forward. The first section of the book is about her early childhood through high school, and it wanders like childhood memories do. Ms. Moody provides some context for her memories: for example, there were some black cotton farmers who owned a large amount of land in the county, but they could not get government contracts to sell their cotton directly to market, so they had to sell it to white cotton farmers at a discount. Interwoven with her memories of going to dances or getting a job as a mother’s helper at 9 are the snippets of violence that a child hears about when the adults think she isn’t listening. Emmett Till was murdered shortly before she began high school, and she notes that at that point she developed a fear greater than her fear of hunger: “…the fear of being killed just because I was black.”
She gets good grades in high school and manages to get into college. This is not without challenges, as her mother cannot afford to support her while she is in college and funds for black students are rare. She succeeds, however, in staying in college (though she does go hungry periodically, as her money runs out), and there she begins her work for the NAACP, and later through CORE and SNCC. She has to stop communicating with her mother because of her activism, and she can no longer go home – her mother is threatened by local white people who know of her daughters work with the NAACP. She participates in sit ins at lunch counters and in bus stations and she is beaten and jailed for her work. She ends up taking over the CORE office in Canton, Mississippi in 1964 (Freedom Summer), and the ups and downs of that summer – she organized voting drives and organized local youths, but she also lived in constant terror of being murdered by local whites. Ultimately, because of what she saw and what she experienced, Ms. Moody became disaffected with the concept of non-violence and civil disobedience that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, espoused.
This is a difficult book to read, but Ms. Moody does a fantastic job of showing how her life – from Centreville, Mississippi, to Canton, Mississippi – informed her radicalization, her community activism, and finally her discontent with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Her observations continue to have resonance today.