Coming of Age in Mississippi

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Coming of Age in Mississippi

Anne Moody 1968

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


By the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had seen enormous successes along with tragic losses. Significant anti-discrimination legislation had been passed, but in the view of many civil rights activists, society had not changed enough. The civil rights movement itself was transforming, turning away from the nonviolence of Martin Luther King to a more militant stance epitomized by Malcolm X. Into this confusion, in 1968, Moody published her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi. This startling depiction of what it was like to grow up a poor, southern African American captured the attention of Americans around the country, from all social classes and all backgrounds. Moody, intimately involved in the civil rights movement in the first half of 1960s, created an unforgettable image of the inequities and violence that characterized southern society.

Instead of focusing on her years in the civil rights movement, Moody chose to start at the beginning—when she was four years old, the child of poor sharecroppers working for a white farmer. In telling the story of her life, Moody shows why the civil rights movement was such a necessity and the depth of the injustices it had to correct; Moody's autobiography depicts the uphill battle that faced all southern African Americans.

More than thirty years later, Moody's autobiography still retains the power it had for its first readers. Part of the book's long-lasting appeal is its basic humanity. Despite herself, Moody gets drawn into the fight for civil rights, knowing the challenge is incredibly difficult but knowing she has no other path to take.

Author Biography

Born Essie Mae Moody on September 15, 1940, near Centreville, Mississippi, Moody was the daughter of poor African-American sharecroppers. She was the oldest of nine children. Moody's father left the family when she was only a young child, and her mother supported the family through domestic and restaurant work.

Moody grew up in and around Centreville, where she attended segregated schools. Despite her impoverished circumstances, which led her to work from the fourth grade on, Moody was a good student. She won a basketball scholarship to Natchez Junior College and was in attendance from 1959 through 1961. She then won an academic scholarship to Tugaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, and received a bachelor of science degree in 1964.

While at Tugaloo, Moody became an activist in the civil rights movement, maintaining involvement with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1963, she was one of three young people who staged a sitin at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson. She also took part in the 1963 march on Washington, D.C.

Moody worked in Canton, Mississippi, for more than a year with CORE to register African-American voters. She faced threats of violence and also was put on the Ku Klux Klan's blacklist during this period. From 1964 through 1965, Moody served as the civil rights and project coordinator at Cornell University.

Becoming disenchanted with certain aspects of the civil rights movement, Moody moved to New York City, where she began to write her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, which was published in 1968. The book has received several national awards.

Aside from her autobiography, Moody has only published one other work, Mr. Death: Four Stories (1975). Moody has also worked as a counselor for the New York City Poverty Program.

Plot Summary


The narrator of Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody (born Essie Mae) spends her first four years in a sharecropper's shack on a plantation owned by a white farmer. Her parents work long hours in the fields. Daddy begins gambling and takes up with another woman, and eventually he deserts the family. Mama and the children move off the plantation, closer to the town of Centreville. Mama supports the family through domestic and restaurant work but often does not earn enough money even for food.

By the time Anne is in the fourth grade, she works regularly after school and on weekends to help support her family. They move into a house that Mama's boyfriend, Raymond, builds for them. Eventually, Raymond and Mama marry, but Raymond is unable to provide for the ever-growing family. Despite working many hours to help support the family, Anne continues to excel in school. She makes top grades, starts playing basketball, and is elected homecoming queen.

High School

As Anne enters high school, a fourteen-yearold African-American boy is killed for whistling at a white woman. Anne realizes that she has overlooked the racial problems and violence that surround her. She now fears "being killed just because I was black." After the murder, Anne overhears Mrs. Burke and her "guild meeting" discuss the NAACP, and she finds out from her teacher that this organization is trying to improve the situation for southern African Americans. She feels hatred toward almost everyone: whites who kill African Americans and African Americans for not doing anything to stop these actions. The tensions between the white and black communities of Centreville escalate, resulting in the beating of one of Anne's classmates and the deliberate setting of a fire that kills almost an entire family.

These events, and the talk surrounding them, upset Anne greatly, so she goes to spend the summer with Uncle Ed, who lives in New Orleans. When she returns to Centreville, she learns of more racial problems that end with a cousin of hers being run out of town. When she asks her family about it, they just get angry and refuse to talk. Anne gets the feeling that Raymond hates her.

To take her mind off her problems, Anne becomes very busy with studies, extracurricular activities, and work. She also begins to tutor Mrs. Burke's son, Wayne, and his white friends in math. Wayne and Anne become friends, which makes Mrs. Burke angry and nervous. Wayne and Mrs. Burke fight over his relationship with Anne, and Anne quits working for Mrs. Burke after she implies that either Anne or her brother stole from her. Over the next few years, Anne finds work with other people and goes to New Orleans in the summers. She works hard to save money for college.

At the start of her last year in high school, Anne realizes that Raymond has started to desire her sexually. The tension escalates, and one day Anne gets into a fight with Raymond and leaves home. She goes to stay with her father and his wife, Emma, for the last six weeks of school. At first, she gets along well there. However, Emma, housebound because of an injury, starts treating Anne poorly. Two days after her high school graduation, Anne leaves town.


Anne gets a basketball scholarship to a two-year junior college in Mississippi. Anne feels like college is a prison. During her second year, Anne meets her first boyfriend, a popular basketball player. She also leads a boycott of the school cafeteria, her first act of political activism.

Anne receives a scholarship to the best African-American senior college in the state, Tugaloo College, where she joins the local NAACP chapter. Tugaloo students are involved in demonstrations throughout Jackson. Anne becomes so involved in her NAACP activities that her grades drop. Anne is then recruited to help register African-American voters in the Mississippi Delta. As Anne and her coworkers convince African Americans to listen to their views, for the first time, she thinks that something can be done to change the way that whites treat African Americans.

The Movement

In her senior year, Anne becomes increasingly involved with the civil rights movement, canvassing and giving speeches. Along with two other students, Anne stages a sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter. Despite being physically and verbally abused by the gathering white mob, the students, joined by other demonstrators—some white—remain at the lunch counter for several hours, until the manager of Woolworth's decides to close the store early. When Anne and her friends leave the store, they discover about ninety police officers, none of whom has prevented the mob violence.

Many more demonstrations take place throughout Jackson. Anne gets arrested for her participation and, along with hundreds of other students, is jailed. Following the event, Anne receives letters from her family and learns for the first time that her actions are causing problems for her family back in Centreville.

Jackson becomes the hotbed of racial agitation. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers is shot to death. Anne and the other workers launch a protest march and are arrested. Thousands of African Americans attend Evers's funeral, and a demonstration ensues. Evers's murder contributes to the confusion and infighting between civil rights organizations.

Anne decides to work at the CORE offices in Canton, Mississippi, though she is warned by local civil rights leaders against doing so. Anne and the other workers face an uphill battle in registering voters. African Americans who support their activities or try to register are often threatened with violence or fired from their jobs. Many African Americans fail the voter registration tests as well. The CORE workers are also threatened with violence.

In August 1963, Anne attends the March on Washington, D.C. Then, on September 15, she learns of the Birmingham church bombing, which kills four young girls. This crime causes Anne to question the movement's nonviolent tactics. However, she continues her work in Canton. When high school students hold a rally, the police begin to harass the CORE workers on an almost-nightly basis. Anne finds out that she has been placed on a Ku Klux Klan blacklist, which makes her even more nervous. She begins to fear for her own life, as well as for her family back in Centreville.

Anne decides to take a break from her work and go to New Orleans to work and live with her sister, Adline. Mama, whom Anne has not seen in several years, comes to visit; however, she and Anne have little to say to each other. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 encourages Anne to participate in CORE activities in New Orleans, but she finds it just as hard to register voters in the city as it has been in Canton.

In May, Anne returns to Tugaloo for graduation, where she learns of plans for an upcoming voter registration drive, so-called Freedom Summer, for which northern college students will come south to help. Anne visits Canton, where the CORE workers have organized Freedom Day to take place. During this march, the police brutally attack a boy, drawing the crowd to the brink of violence and almost putting an end to the protest.

After graduation, Anne returns briefly to New Orleans but then goes back to Canton. However, she is depressed by the situation African Americans face. When she gets to the CORE offices, she finds a bus is about to leave for Washington, D.C., transporting African Americans who will testify in congressional hearings about racial discrimination and injustice in the South. Without hesitation, Anne joins the group on the bus. While the others are singing "We Shall Overcome," Anne thinks about all the violence the whites have bestowed upon the African Americans. She wonders if African Americans will ever achieve their goal of racial justice.

Key Figures

Miss Adams

Miss Adams is the basketball coach at Natchez College. She rules her team strictly, and unlike the rest of the students, Anne speaks up for her rights. Because of Anne's actions, Miss Adams is forced to treat the girls more fairly.

Mrs. Burke

Anne meets Mrs. Burke, "one of the meanest white women in town," while working for Mrs. Burke's daughter, Linda Jean Jenkins. Mrs. Burke thinks that Linda Jean treats Anne too well and constantly tries to convince her to change this behavior. Anne goes to work for Mrs. Burke after Jenkins moves away. While Anne forces her into certain concessions, such as allowing her to use the front door, Mrs. Burke remains bigoted in her beliefs. She also helps stir up other white women against Centreville's African-American community.

Wayne Burke

Wayne is Mrs. Burke's son. He is in the same grade as Anne. During the tenth grade, Anne starts to tutor Wayne and his friends in mathematics, and the two teenagers become friends. Their relationship angers Mrs. Burke a great deal.

Ed Cassidy

Ed Cassidy is the sheriff of Centreville. He is known among the African-American community as the "quiet nigger hater." Despite this label, Anne finds herself turning to him when she runs away from Raymond and Mama's home.

Mr. C. O. Chinn

When Anne arrives in Canton, C. O. Chinn and his wife, restaurant owners, are the wealthiest African Americans in town. C. O. is a powerful man in the town. The African Americans respect him, and the whites fear him. His support of the civil rights workers brings more African Americans to the cause. Because of his involvement, however, C. O. loses his business. At the end of the memoir, Chinn is serving on a chain gang. Despite his difficult situation, when he sees Anne, he waves and tries to look happy.

Mrs. Chinn

Along with her husband, Mrs. Chinn owns a successful restaurant in Canton. She becomes involved with the CORE movement, which leads the Chinns to lose their business. She is very supportive of Anne and the work that she and her colleagues are doing, but by the end of Coming of Age in Mississippi, she is depressed with the situation in Canton; the African Americans are afraid to demonstrate, her husband is in jail, and the police are harassing her. She tells Anne, "We ain't big enough to do it by ourselves," a sentiment that Anne seems to take to heart.

Mrs. Claiborne

Mrs. Clairborne is one of the kinder white women for whom Anne works. Mrs. Clairborne and her husband treat Anne with respect, inviting her to sit at the dinner table with them and supporting her efforts in school.


Anne's father deserts his family when Anne is only four. From that point on, until her senior year in high school, he has little contact with his three children. Anne lives with him and his wife Emma during the final weeks of high school, and he is pleased to have the chance to spend time with her. The two develop a caring relationship.

Dave Dennis

Dave Dennis is a CORE worker. He works with Anne in Jackson and in Canton.


See Daddy


Emma is Daddy's second wife. Anne goes to live with Daddy and Emma after she leaves home in high school. Emma is a strong, smart woman, and at first, Anne respects her. However, housebound with an injury, Emma starts to feel sorry for herself and takes out her frustration on Anne. Anne and Emma continue their relationship after she moves out of the house, and Emma gives Anne money when she is able to do so.

Doris Erskine

Doris Erskine is a CORE member. She works with Anne in Jackson and decides to join her friend in Canton. However, the threat of violence that she continuously feels there makes her nervous and she irritates Anne.

Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers is the NAACP field secretary. Anne gets to know him during her work in Jackson. Edgers is killed by a white assassin in 1963. His murder scares some civil rights leaders.

Mrs. Linda Jean Jenkins

Anne works for Linda Jean Jenkins, Mrs. Burke's daughter. Linda Jean is a kind, liberal woman. She treats and pays Anne well. Anne is allowed to call Linda Jean by her first name.


Jerry is a classmate of Anne's who is beaten by a group of white men. This beating, which results from tensions stirred up by the white "guild" members, worries Centreville's African-American committee.

Reverend King

Reverend King comes to Tugaloo as the new minister. At first Anne mistrusts him because he is white. However, Reverend King takes part in many demonstrations and proves himself a person worthy of respect. Reverend King and Anne become close during their civil rights work.


Lenora is from Canton, but she is thrown off the plantation where her father works after voicing frustration over racial injustice. She comes to live and work at Freedom House with Anne.


Mama is Anne's mother. As the autobiography begins, she is the mother of two children and a field worker. She has little time to spend with her children, even less after her husband deserts her. Mama has the responsibility of raising the children alone and takes various jobs as a maid and a restaurant worker. She relies on other members of her family to help out watching the children, when they can, but she gets little financial support from others.

Mama begins a long-term affair with Raymond, which results in six more children and their eventual marriage. Although Raymond helps Mama and the family by building a house for them, his family, among whom they live, treats Mama with disdain. Mama is perpetually unhappy because of this. Raymond also turns out to be unable to make a living, and as the family expands, more financial responsibility falls on Mama. After Anne leaves home in her senior year, Mama begs her to return. When Mama comes to Anne's high school graduation, Anne sees that her mother appears to have aged many years in just six weeks.

After Anne becomes involved in the civil rights movement, she tries to get her mother involved. Instead, Mama writes her letters asking her to stop such activity and telling her that if she continues, she will not be able to come back to Centreville. Mama continues to write such letters over the next few years. When Mama comes to New Orleans for a visit, Anne and her mother have not seen each other in two years. Although Anne feels the love her mother has for her, the two women are unable to get past their barriers, and they find little connection.

Adline Moody

Adline is Anne's younger sister by about three and a half years. Adline is unlike Anne; as a child, she shows little interest in schoolwork and as an adult, she lacks Anne's discontent with the plight of southern African Americans. Adline and Anne become reacquainted in New Orleans, when Anne takes a break from her CORE work. At first, Adline is uninterested in the mistreatment of African Americans or in improving herself. By the time Anne moves out of the apartment, however, it seems that Anne's accomplishment may inspire Adline to achieve goals herself, such as graduating college.

Anne Moody

Anne Moody narrates her autobiography. She is born to a poor, rural southern African-American family. Although she grows up in abject poverty, Anne is always determined to better herself. She studies hard and makes excellent grades in school. She starts working when she is only in the fourth grade, and she gives some money toward the upkeep of her family, but she also starts saving for college.

When Anne is fifteen years old, Emmett Till is murdered. This example of racial violence sparks Anne's awareness of the social injustice that pervades the South. She comes to hate everyone: whites for treating African Americans so badly, and African Americans, for not standing up for their rights. She learns about the NAACP from a teacher, but this teacher also tells her to take her mind off the killings and beating because the African-American community in Centreville won't take action against such mistreatment. Anne tries to subvert her thoughts by joining many extracurricular activities, such as dance, piano, and basketball. However, she remains acutely aware of the racial violence and tensions that go on in the town, more so than most of the people around her. She plans to leave Centreville as soon as she graduates from high school.

Anne's skill at basketball wins her a scholarship to junior college, which she attends for two years. She has her first experience with social activism at Natchez College, when she leads a boycott of the school cafeteria. Her high grades win her a fulltuition scholarship to Tugaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where Anne gets involved with the NAACP. She participates in demonstrations, makes trips to the Mississippi Delta, and is one of three students to stage a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Jackson. She is arrested and verbally abused repeatedly for her activities.

Dismayed by the infighting among Jackson's civil rights organizations, Anne volunteers to go to Canton, Mississippi, to work in the voter registration campaign. She thinks she and her fellow CORE workers have a good chance of success because there are so many more African Americans in Canton than there are whites. However, throughout her year in Canton, she is often disillusioned by the attitude of the African Americans. They live in poverty and are scared by the violence of the whites. While in Canton, Anne finds out that she has been placed on a Klan blacklist.

After a year in Canton, Anne goes to New Orleans, unsure if she is leaving the movement for good. However, she finds that she cannot tolerate the air of contentment that surrounds her; she knows that African Americans are being treated unfairly, even if no one else does. After her college graduation, Anne boards a bus for Washington, D.C., with other civil rights workers to testify at congressional hearings on racial inequities in the South. Despite making this journey, Anne wonders if she and her fellow African Americans will ever achieve freedom.

Elmira Moody

See Mama

Essie Mae Moody

See Anne Moody

Fred Moody

See Daddy

Grandfather Moody

Grandfather Moody takes care of the children while Mama is at work. He is ashamed of the way his son treats his family and helps out the family with money.

Miss Ola

Miss Ola is an elderly woman who lives in one of the homes where Mama works. She reads to Anne and helps her with her schoolwork. She teaches Anne how to read, write, and spell.

Miss Pearl

Miss Pearl is Raymond's mother. A mulatto, she dislikes Mama, whose skin is much darker than her own. She treats Mama meanly despite her long relationship with Raymond, which is one of the reasons that Anne comes to dislike Raymond so much.


Raymond, a former soldier, is Mama's second husband and the father of six of her children. Raymond fails as a farmer and fails to find decent work. When Anne is in high school, he begins to have sexual thoughts about her, which leads Anne to leave the house permanently. After she has left, Raymond does not allow Mama to give Anne any money.

George Raymond

George Raymond works with Anne in Canton.

Mrs. Rice

Mrs. Rice is a high school teacher who tells Anne about the NAACP. She also teaches Anne about the way that whites have historically treated southern African Americans. Although Mrs. Rice became "something like a mother" to Anne, she gets fired at the end of the year, and Anne never sees her again.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till is fourteen years old when he is killed by a white lynch mob for whistling at a white woman. His murder makes Anne become aware of racial injustice and the problems that African Americans face in the South.


See Mama.

Joan Trumpauer

Joan Trumpauer is a white student who serves as a secretary for SNCC. She asks Anne to participate in the voter registration drive that the organization is starting in the Mississippi Delta. Over the next few years, Joan and Anne work together and become friends.



Moody's development and life are greatly shaped by the tremendous amount of racial discrimination and prejudice that African Americans face in the South at the time she is growing up. In the 1940 and 1950s, before Anne joins the civil rights movement, African Americans lacked many essential rights, such as the right to obtain an education equal to those offered to white children, and were often unable to exercise those rights they had, such as the right to vote. The African-American population of Mississippi face racial injustice in different ways. Most African Americans are relegated to low-paying, menial jobs; schools have inadequate facilities; and African-American farmers are not allowed to produce enough on their land to make a decent living. African Americans also face prejudice in the form of violence. Coming of Age in Mississippi provides many examples of beatings and murders inflicted upon African Americans. The provocation for these crimes often stems from wanting to intimidate African Americans or to punish them for doing something that goes against the segregationist codes of the South. The white police force does nothing to prevent these crimes and even participates in them at times.

Some whites in the book are openly and unquestionably racist, such as Mrs. Burke. Like so many other whites, Mrs. Burke thinks that African Americans are inferior and undeserving of proper treatment, and she wants her only contact with them to be in an employer-employee relationship. Other whites whom Anne meets support her as well as the African-American cause. Miss Ola, Mrs. Claiborne, Linda Jean Jenkins, and Mrs. Burke's mother are all people who treat Anne with respect. Revered King, his wife, and Joan Trombauer are examples of whites who work hard and risk their own safety to secure civil rights for African Americans.

However, the African-American community also is racially prejudiced. The mulatto population often looks down on the darker African-American population. Miss Pearl, a "yellow" woman with straight hair, dislikes Mama because her skin color is dark. Anne almost turns down the scholarship to Tugaloo because she hears that all the other students are mulattos and fears that they will mistreat her.


Anne and her family live in severe poverty. Until they move into the house that Raymond built, Anne never feels like she has lived in a real home. In this home, they have furniture and live in more than two rooms. However, Mama is unable to earn enough money to care for the family well. Meals often consist of bread or beans; meat is an almost unheard-of luxury. When Anne is in junior high school, she has no money to buy school clothes and almost does not attend homecoming, though she is queen, because she does not have the money to buy a dress. Anne also comments on the poverty that she sees in other African-American families. With her first paycheck from CORE, Anne buys school clothes and supplies for two girls who are unable to attend school without these necessities. She sees in these girls echoes of her own life.


In Coming of Age in Mississippi, Moody presents a number of estranged families, including Moody's own. Her childhood lacks any positive example of a family; her father deserts the family for another women, and her mother eventually marries a man whose family disrespects and dislikes her. As a teenager, Moody also feels sexually threatened by her stepfather, which causes her to leave home when she is still in high school. Moody sees her natural father rarely throughout her life. She also does not develop close ties with any of her eight brothers or sisters.

The only positive example of a family that Moody has is Emma's kin. In the weeks that she lives with Emma and Daddy, Moody often goes with them to visit Emma's relatives. Walking inside the family café, Moody immediately "felt the closeness of Emma's family."

Topics for Further Study

  • Coming of Age in Mississippi is divided into four sections. Which do you think is the most powerful section? Why?
  • Find out more about urban and rural southern society in the 1940s and 1950s, prior to the beginning of the civil rights movement. Compare and contrast these two environments.
  • Conduct research to find out more about a specific aspect or leader of the civil rights movement, such as desegregating Central High School in Little Rock or Martin Luther King, Jr. Write a report analyzing your selected topic or person in terms of the overall movement.
  • Find out more about the murder of Emmett Till, Louis Allen, or Medgar Evers. Write an article about this incident that might have appeared in a liberal northern newspaper at the time.
  • Watch a movie depicting the civil rights era, such as Mississippi Burning, which is about Freedom Summer, or The Ghosts of Mississippi, which is about bringing the killer of Medgar Evers to justice. Then conduct research on some of the events portrayed in the movie and write a critique of the film with regard to its historical accuracy.
  • Find out about the significant events of the civil rights movement that took place after spring of 1964. Write an epilogue to Coming of Age in Mississippi that summarizes these events and their effects on southern African Americans.
  • Find out how northern politicians in the 1950s and 1960s responded to the civil rights movement and African-American demands for equality. Write a report on their support, or lack of support, of the civil rights movement.

When Moody joins the civil rights movement, her actions have serious repercussions on her relationship with her family, which is already strained. She finds herself completely cut off from them. She cannot send letters home, for fear they will bring violence upon the family, nor can she visit. Her mother, however, sends her numerous letters asking her to quit the work and pointing out that Moody is putting her family in danger. When Moody leaves Canton and goes to New Orleans, she sees several family members for the first time in years. While she becomes reacquainted with her sister Adline, with whom she shares an apartment, and her brother Junior, her grandmother won't let her in the house. Mama also comes to visit, but she and Moody have little to say to each other. Moody's isolation hits her most strongly when she attends her college graduation and has no members of her family present, especially since she anticipates that her feeling of being alone will only get worse.



Coming of Age in Mississippi is Moody's fictionalized autobiography, which means that Moody uses fictional and novelistic techniques, such as recreating conversations and presenting events in greater detail than she could possibly remember, to tell the story of her life. Her autobiography covers her life from her earliest memories, when she was about four, until 1963, when she headed to Washington, D.C. It is likely that she chose to end her autobiography at that point because later that year she went to Ithaca, New York, to coordinate civil rights efforts. Thus, Coming of Age in Mississippi encompasses her entire civil rights career in the South.

Although the essential events of Coming of Age in Mississippi are indisputable, Moody uses authorial liberty to shape them. For instance, she chooses to describe certain events in detail, such as the Woolworth sit-in, while at other times she glides over entire years of her life. This method allows Moody to emphasize what she considers to be the most formative events over the twenty-three years about which she is writing.

Dialect and Dialogue

Moody renders the poor, rural, African-American speech that was commonplace to her background in the 1940s through 1960s. Moody captures nuances of speech such as saying, "Mama them" instead of "Mama and them." She uses standard jargon, such as calling African Americans who kowtow to white people "Toms." The figures in the story rarely speak with proper grammar or enunciation. Even the well-educated Moody demonstrates many lapses in grammar though scenes between her and other CORE members show that she can speak perfect English when she wants. At times, however, she and her colleagues play upon the dialects that surround them. When Lenora and Doris bring guns back to Freedom House, they respond with strong accents to Moody's questions. "'I's ooilin' mah gun,"' says Lenora, and "'This heah baby is a takin' a nap,"' says Doris. Their playfulness in light of a serious incident annoys Moody, and they revert to their more customary way of speaking.


The setting of Coming of Age in Mississippi is the Deep South of the 1940s through early 1960s. This is a region marked by deeply ingrained racism. African Americans have many rights in the law books but in daily life are still enchained by prejudice. Southern society discriminates against them; for the most part, the only jobs available to African Americans are menial ones such as domestics or factory workers. Moody notes that even though she has a college education, the only professional career open to her is teaching.

The physical location where the African Americans live and work further points out the racial injustice inherent to this setting. Her life begins in a sharecropper's shack on a white farmer's plantation. For the most part, her succeeding homes are flimsy, decrepit shacks in neighborhoods that usually lack paved streets and sidewalks. The African-American community in and around Canton, Mississippi, suffers in the same manner. Although African Americans in Canton own a great deal of land, laws prevent them from farming it, so they continue to be tied to the land of white farmers, as they have been for decades.

Historical Context

African Americans in the 1940s

World War II offered increasing economic opportunities for many African Americans as the war machine demanded soldiers and factory workers. Almost one million African-American soldiers served in the armed forces; however, they were forced to serve in segregated units. Most were kept out of combat. Although at first many war plants would not hire African Americans or would only hire them as janitors, the 1941 Fair Employment Practices Committee changed this practice. It helped protect African Americans from employment discrimination. An executive order issued two years later required nondiscrimination clauses in all war contracts. Over time, many African-American workers moved into better-paying industrial jobs.

In the aftermath of World War II, many Americans lost their jobs to returning veterans, and African Americans were particularly affected. Their situation was further worsened when Congress abolished the Fair Employment Practices Committee. African Americans throughout the nation faced

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: Before 1965, fewer than six percent of African Americans in Mississippi are registered to vote.

    1960s: After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thousands of southern African Americans register to vote. By 1968, some fifty-nine percent of eligible African-American voters in Mississippi are registered.

    Today: In the late 1990s, of the total 1,975,000 of Mississippi voters, 670,000 are African American. Overall in the United States, 23.5 million African Americans are registered to vote, but only 63.5 percent report having voted in the 1996 presidential election.

  • 1950s: Prior to 1962, universities and colleges in the South are not open to African Americans. As they are forced to do at the lower educational levels, African Americans attend their own schools.

    1960s: In 1962, a court order forces the University of Mississippi to admit African-American James Meredith. When he arrives on campus, a riot breaks out. Flanked by armed guards, Meredith attends classes for the rest of the year. He graduates in 1963.

    Today: Affirmative action, a policy that seeks to redress past discrimination through active measures to ensure equal opportunity, is undergoing challenges in the U. S. court system. Opponents claim that affirmative action in school admission policy is illegal because race is being used as a factor in judging applicants. In the late 1990s and early 2000, the admissions policies of several graduate schools are found to be unconstitutional. However, polls reveal that the majority of Americans support affirmative action programs in school admissions policies.

  • 1940s and 1950s: As they have long been doing, white state officials use unfair election rules, poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of violence and loss of jobs to prevent many southern African Americans from voting or even registering to vote.

    1960s: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gives the federal government the power to inspect voter registration procedures and to protect all citizens' right to vote.

    Today: The presidential election of 2000 brought about charges of voter disenfranchisement and civil rights abuses. In the aftermath of the election, the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights approves an investigative report that finds the 2000 presidential race in Florida has been marred by injustice. The report states that African-American voters were nine times more likely than white voters to have their ballots discarded as invalid.

  • 1940s and 1950s: African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph protests lower pay of African Americans in industrial jobs and segregation in the armed forces. His efforts and his threats to organize massive marches on Washington, D.C., help reverse these policies. Throughout the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) focuses on abolishing segregation in public schools in the United States. Civil rights leaders also work to desegregate public transportation systems in the South.

    1960s: African-American civil rights leaders continue their hard work to desegregate all aspects of society, to ensure equal access to jobs and educational opportunities, and to register African-American voters. Their efforts bring about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    Today: Despite the progress made in desegregating and equalizing American society, many minorities still feel they lack equal opportunities. A survey conducted in 2001 shows that 87 percent of all African Americans polled said that they still lack full civil rights and that more work needs to be done.

segregation in schools and public places as well as discrimination in housing and employment. Lynchings also continued to take place, particularly in the South. In 1946, civil rights groups urged President Harry S. Truman to take action against racism in American society. Truman responded by creating the multiracial Committee on Civil Rights. The committee's report, published the following year, documented widespread discrimination, civil rights abuses, and violence perpetrated against African Americans. Based on these findings, Truman urged Congress to pass an antilynching law and an anti-poll-tax measure. He worked to end discrimination in federal agencies and the military by banning discrimination in hiring, and he desegregated the military. He also took steps to end employment discrimination by companies holding government contracts.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s

In the 1950s African Americans began to more actively demand their civil rights. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had long sought to end segregation in education. The 1952 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka successfully overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine that had long allowed segregation in public schools. Despite this ruling, by the end of the 1956-1957 school year, most southern schools remained segregated. The school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, was the first in the South to announce that it would follow the Brown decision. Nine African-American students were chosen to attend Little Rock's Central High. They faced a mob of angry whites and a line of state-sanction, armed National Guardsmen when they tried to go to school. Guarded by one thousand federal troops, sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the African-American students entered the school, desegregating Central High. The first African-American student graduated from Little Rock's Central High in 1958.

Civil rights leaders also determined to end segregation on southern transportation systems. To challenge the practice of forcing African Americans to ride in the back of city buses, they organized Montgomery's African Americans in a citywide boycott. For close to a year, the African-American population refused to ride the public bus system. In 1956, the Supreme Court declared such segregation laws unconstitutional. By the end of the year, Montgomery had a desegregated bus system. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957—the first civil rights law passed since Reconstruction—making it a federal crime to prevent any qualified person from voting.

Through his role in the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr., a young Baptist minister, emerged as an important leader in the fight for civil rights. He believed in the use of nonviolent resistance in protests. Some of the earliest protests were sit-ins launched at segregated lunch counters throughout the South, beginning in 1958. More than 50,000 students, African-American and white, took part in such protests, and by the end of 1960, most restaurants were integrated.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s

By the 1960s, several civil rights organizations were active. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a northern-based, integrated civil rights group, worked to end segregation in bus facilities, which was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 1960. The following year, CORE organized black and white Freedom Riders to travel through the South on public buses. When they reached Alabama, they were attacked by white mobs. In Jackson, Mississippi, state officials arrested the riders. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) then sent in new riders to take their place. Over the summer, more than three hundred riders traveled the South to protest segregation. Their actions helped persuade the Interstate Commerce Commission to strengthen its desegregation regulations, and segregation in interstate buses ceased to exist by 1963.

Civil rights workers also had success in desegregating public universities. A violent attack on 1,000 youths marching peacefully in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 led to increased support for the civil rights movement. President John F. Kennedy determined to take a stand on civil rights. Civil rights leaders called for the March on Washington, D.C., which drew more than 200,000 people to the nation's capital, to encourage passage of civil rights legislation. The resulting Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination in employment and public accommodations, and it gave the Justice Department the power to enforce school desegregation.

Registering Voters

Other civil rights activists turned their attention to voter registration. They chose to begin their work in Mississippi, where African Americans made up about forty percent of the population in the state, but only five percent of eligible African-American adults were registered to vote. State officials used a variety of means to prevent them from registering, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and violence. SNCC organizers believed that the state was key to their efforts to get rid of racial discrimination.

McComb, Mississippi, a town of 12,000 citizens with only 250 registered African-American voters, was their first target. Robert Moses of SNCC arrived there in July 1961. In less than a month he had registered six voters as well as been jailed, beaten, and chased by an angry mob. Violence increased with the murder of Herbert Lee, who had worked as Moses's driver. Despite evidence to the contrary, Lee's murder was ruled an act of self-defense. In the midst of arrest and mob attacks, the McComb voter registration drive came to an end.

Although activists continued the drive, the intimidation tactics practiced by southern whites kept many African Americans from registering. In 1963, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) conducted two mock elections to show that African Americans in Mississippi were interested in voting. Some 27,000 African Americans voted in the first election and some 80,000—four times the number of registered African-American voters in the state—voted in the second election. In 1963, SNCC decided to recruit white volunteers from northern colleges to come to Mississippi to help in the voter registration efforts. These activists launched Freedom Summer in 1964 and rallied African Americans in Mississippi and in Alabama to register to vote. Their actions, and the violence with which whites met these workers, contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which put the voter registration process under federal control and greatly increased the number of registered African-American voters in the South.

Critical Overview

Coming of Age in Mississippi was published in 1968 to overwhelmingly enthusiastic acclaim. Around the country, journalists, reviewers, even politicians, remarked upon Moody's stirring story and the historic chain of events to which she bore witness. Senator Edward M. Kennedy became the spokesperson for the New York Times with his 1969 review in which he declared that Coming of Age in Mississippi was "a history of our time, seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of someone who decided for herself that things had to be changed." Kennedy was certainly not alone in his thinking. C. N. Degler also remarked in the Nation on the timeliness and importance of Moody's work: "Though the author of this autobiography is only twenty-eight years old, her life has already spanned the revolution that has … made racial equality the central issue of our time."

Coming of Age in Mississippi was successful because it evoked for so many readers a picture of a world they could not heretofore imagine. Moody's autobiography brought to life the rampant discrimination and violence inflicted upon southern African Americans on a daily basis, as well as the lengths to which whites would go to perpetuate this oppression. Many reviewers commented on the truthful ring of Moody's prose. Wrote Degler, "Moody's candor and refusal to overdramatize create an air of verisimilitude that is the book's signal achievement." Kennedy asserted that in her work, Moody was "personalizing poverty and degradation and making it more real than any study or statistic could have done."

Although an audience for Coming of Age in Mississippi may have developed out of interest in the civil rights movement, which had taken particularly violent turns the summer before the book was published, many readers also appreciated it for its portrayal of the rural southern African-American world. Mary Ellmann maintained in Nation,"The first section, Childhood, is different from, and better than, all the rest.… It hits the page like a natural force, crude and undeniable and, against all principles of beauty, beautiful." Shane Stevens went much further with his praise in Book World:"Some [books] have tried to sketch a picture of these years from the American black man's point of view. Coming of Age in Mississippi is, quite simply, one of the very best of them."

However, the attention that Moody's autobiography drew to the civil rights movement, at a time when an American would be hard-pressed to ignore it, was perhaps more important. For, as Senator Kennedy noted, even in 1969 discrimination and inequity still prevailed. In closing his review, Kennedy admonished, "Anne Moody's powerful and moving book is a timely reminder that we cannot now relax in the struggle for sound justice in America or in any part of America. We would do so at our peril."

In the years since its initial publication, Coming of Age in Mississippi has evolved into a staple on college reading lists and a key text to understanding the civil rights movement in the United States. While Moody herself moved outside of that sphere, her enduring work has placed her presence and influence firmly within the movement.


Rena Korb

Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she explores the pervading racism that characterized the southern United States prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Coming of Age in Mississippi is a stark testimony to the racial injustice that characterized the southern United States until the civil rights movements of the 1960s brought lasting changes to the region. African Americans had been given full voting and citizenship rights after the Civil War, but with the exception of a brief period immediately following this conflict, many southern African Americans were unable to enjoy these rights for close to one hundred years. The southern world into which Moody was born in 1940 was one ruled by whites. Her autobiography is filled with incidents that serve as a reminder of this disheartening truth. Seen as a whole, they can help explain Moody's lack of optimism as expressed at the end of Coming of Age in Mississippi and her departure from the civil rights movement, which had already occurred by the time she wrote her autobiography.

The racial oppression that Moody describes is insidious because it is so pervasive a part of southern society. Mississippi is a state where a member of the legislature can kill an African American "without provocation" and still be found to have acted in self-defense. The majority of adult African Americans, in Centreville and other rural areas, have come to accept this oppression and try to avoid bringing the anger of the whites upon themselves. They often speak of African Americans who have been killed by whites as going on to a better place in heaven. As a young child, Moody hears adults talking about "Negroes found floating in a river or dead somewhere with their bodies riddled with bullets." The only explanation given to her is that an "EvilJames Farmer, co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) walking next to a picketer. Moody was involved with CORE while a student at Tugaloo College Spirit" killed these people. Moody is left to figure out for herself that this Evil Spirit is actually the white southerner.

Moody comes to comprehend the African American's place in the white world at the age of fourteen. At this time, Emmett Till, a fourteen years old from Chicago, is killed. Although other teenagers have heard about his murder, Moody is taken by surprise. She recalls how she suddenly "realized I didn't really know what was going on all around me." The African-American complicity in ignoring the murder, which arises out of justifiable fear, is inherent in Mama's reaction: she gets angry when Moody asks about Till's murder and refuses to talk about it. Her reason for doing so is clear when she says, "Eddie them better watch how they go around here talking. These white folks git a hold of it they gonna be in trouble." In contrast to Mama, the racist Mrs. Burke is more than willing to talk about the murder. She explains to Moody that Till was "killed because he got out of his place with a white woman." Perhaps she sees some suggestion of anger on Moody's face, for when Mrs. Burke learns that Moody is the same age as Emmett Till was, she comments, "It's a shame he had to die so soon"—what certainly could be construed as a veiled threat from the "meanest white woman in town." On some level, Moody senses this threat—"when Mrs. Burke talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me." Till's murder and Mrs. Burke's reaction to it give Moody a new fear: "the fear of being killed just because I was black."

From then on, Moody becomes increasingly aware of racial and social injustices. She willingly talks about the incidents of racial violence that take place and actively seeks out information. There are few other members of the community who are willing to talk about these subjects. However, Moody learns from a teacher about the NAACP as well as about "Negroes being butchered and slaughtered by whites in the South." Despite acknowledging this truth, the teacher wants to keep their conversation secret and then advises Moody, "It's not good for you to concern yourself too much about these killings and beatings and burnings," because the "Negroes here ain't gonna do nothing about them." When Moody talks with a schoolmate, Jerry, about his beating at the hands of a gang of white men, he says that his parents wouldn't even take him to the hospital because "they were scared to take me to white doctors." A few weeks later, the occupied house of an African-American family is deliberately set on fire. Along with about a hundred people, Moody silently observes the debris and charred bodies. The expressions on the faces of the African Americans would haunt her forever in their "almost unanimous hopelessness."

What Do I Read Next?

  • Mr. Death: Four Stories (1975) is Moody's only other published work.
  • Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy (1945) uses fictional and novelistic techniques to describe Wright's youth in Mississippi and Tennessee. It is widely considered to be one of his finest works.
  • Albert French's novel Billy (1995) takes place in rural Mississippi in the 1930s. When ten-yearold Billy accidentally kills a white teenager, he is placed on trial in a courtroom that shows the degree of racism and injustice prevalent in the South at that time.
  • Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights (1985) is James Farmer's award-winning contribution to literature of the civil rights movement. Farmer, who founded CORE in 1942, conveys the struggle that he and other civil rights leaders went through to achieve their important goals.
  • I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1996), by Charles M. Payne, emphasizes the grassroots organization and the individuals involved in the civil rights struggle in Mississippi.
  • The Pulitzer Prize—winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1961), by Harper Lee, tells the story of a small-town southern lawyer who defends an African-American man accused of raping a white woman.
  • A Way Out of No Way: Writings about Growing Up Black in America (1996), edited by Jacqueline Wilson, collects works by African-American writers, including Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Jamaica Kincaid. The pieces deal with such issues as family, race, and coming of age.

Even more appalling is the revelation that African-Americans themselves are sometimes involved in these murderous incidents. Samuel Quinn is killed for attempting to organize the Centreville African Americans into the NAACP. The whites found out about his efforts because he went among the African Americans "he thought he could trust" to get people interested, but "someone squealed." This "someone" is later revealed to be the high school principal who, "[I]t was said … also helped plot his death." Also, it was African Americans, not whites, who put the fatal bullets in Quinn.

Her understanding of the racial violence that wracks the South causes Moody to hate people, the whites who were "responsible for the countless murders" as well as the African Americans "for not standing up and doing something about the murders." For a few years, however, Moody attempts to replicate the behavior of the African Americans who surround her. She immerses herself in school activities and studies, and while Quinn's murder brings "memories of all the other killings, beatings, and abuses inflicted upon Negroes by whites" and makes her take to her bed for several days, Moody does not follow through on her fleeting idea of "waging a war in protest against the killings all by myself." Instead, she internalizes her feelings of self-and race-hatred and "slowly began to escape within [her]self again." Her only outward reaction is her sustained plan to leave Centreville and Mississippi.

Forced to remain in the state to obtain a college education, Moody is drawn within a few years into the civil rights movement. While she participates in sit-ins and other demonstrations in the city of Jackson, back in Centreville her protest activities bring threats upon her family. When Moody goes to Canton, in Madison County, a place "where Negroes frequently turned up dead," she finds many of the same problems that existed in Centreville. To intimidate the African Americans and keep them from working with CORE and registering to vote, the whites of Canton rely on violent scare tactics. They shoot at high school students with buckshot pellets. They fire at a pregnant woman who is walking with her two sons. A man rapes a high school girl while she works in the cotton fields and then goes "around talking about it." The African Americans react as anticipated: they drop their participation with CORE and look at Moody as if to say, "Why don't you all get out of here before you get us all killed?"

In Canton, Moody comes to have firsthand experience with the intensity of whites' desire to continue to oppress African Americans. Even the so-called law enforcement officers actively participate in the harassment of the CORE workers, and one police officer in particular seems to target Moody. Even federal officers show disdain for the rights of the African Americans. FBI officers who come South to find out about the shooting of the Canton teenagers do little to investigate and nothing to prevent such violence from happening again; Moody senses their unspoken words: "'What a shame these niggers have to come into a place and open up a joint like this and cause all this trouble for us."' In another incident, the FBI impassively observes Canton police officers brutally beat a protest marcher. Another killing might have been prevented if the Justice Department had paid attention to Louis Allen, who identifies a white man as a murder and later reports threats on his own life. However, this law enforcement agency tells Allen, "'We can't protect every individual in Mississippi."' Moody affirms this base injustice when she notes that "the United States could afford to maintain the Peace Corps to protect and assist the under-privileged of other countries while native-born American citizens were murdered and brutalized daily and nothing was done. "

" Her understanding of the racial violence that wracks the South causes Moody to hate people, the whites who were 'responsible for the countless murders' as well as the African Americans 'for not standing up and doing something about the murders."'

After more than a year in the civil rights movement, Moody comes to question the workers' ability to bring about change in the South. As Moody heads off to Washington, D.C., on the CORE bus, she brings Coming of Age in Mississippi to a close. She ends her story in remembering all the bad things that have happened: "the Taplin burning, the Birmingham church bombing, Medgar Evers' murder, the blood gushing out of McKinley's head, and all the other murders." She thinks of her friends, the Chinns, the first African Americans in Canton to welcome the CORE workers. On this last day, Mrs. Chinn tells her, despite all the work they have done in Canton, "things are even worse than they were before." Mr. Chinn, who has "sacrificed and lost all he had trying to get the Negroes moving," is now locked up with a chain gang. She wonders if Mrs. Chinn is right when she says, "'This ain't the way. We ain't big enough to do it by ourselves."' On the bus to Washington D.C., the other African Americans begin singing "We Shall Overcome," but Anne is left with the following words that echo in her head: "I wonder. I really wonder."


Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Coming of Age in Mississippi, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and is a published writer of literary themes. In this essay, she compares the personal, social, and historical circumstances surrounding Moody's book with Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy.

In Moody's autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi readers learn that Moody was born in Centreville, Mississippi. This small Southern town, as it turns out, is only about fifty miles south of Richard Wright's birthplace, Roxie, Mississippi. The proximity of these towns and these writers' shared African-American ancestry make their life stories strangely similar. However, their autobiographies are significantly marked by the different time-frames in which the authors grew up, Wright in the 1920s and 1930s and Moody in the 1950s and 1960s.

Juxtaposing Wright's Black Boy and Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi suggests changes in black experience in the South during two turbulent periods and gives views of the development in the U. S. civil rights movement. Conditioned by their environments and times, these writers were driven by a similar combination of fear and anger. However, they chose different paths in their attempts to acquire their own freedom and promote freedom among their peers.

Early circumstances in Moody's and Wright's lives, though separated by nearly thirty years, were comparable, but one important difference. Both writers were born into families of sharecroppers, the most common means during the first half of the twentieth century for African-American families in the South to make their living. Both Moody and Wright lost their fathers, who left their mothers behind to raise the children. One important difference is that Moody's mother had good health and eventually married a man who was able to provide a decent home and minimum meals for his family. Wright's mother, by contrast, had several debilitating strokes and never remarried. While Wright was quite young, he was forced to drop out of school and find menial jobs, pick through the rubble in the street for pieces of coal, and take care of himself and his younger brother without adult help. This pattern of working on his own began before Wright reached the age of ten and continued throughout his childhood. Wright's severe poverty also left him constantly hungry, a condition that continued until he was well past his twenty-fifth year. Although both writers suffered, Wright had less hope for future freedom.

A more obvious difference between the two writers is seen in the social pressures of their early years. So-called Jim Crow laws, under which regulations were created to promote strict segregation, prevailed in the South during both Wright's and Moody's experiences there. However, as Wright was growing up, the Ku Klux Klan was extremely active in enforcing racial separation. The Klan committed acts of brutality, torture, and murder to warning all black people. When African Americans stepped across the invisible but well-defined lines of social conduct as defined by the Jim Crow laws, they knew they would probably be severely punished. Although some social protests in the form of boycotts were carried out during Wright's youth in the South, most members of African-American communities learned survival behaviors that expressed a surface submission to the white supremacists. The KKK was so dominant in the 1920s and 1930s that some Southern U. S. congressmen openly supported activities of the KKK by attending and speaking at Klan meetings without their being considered immoral.

In contrast, during Moody's childhood, slow, but nonetheless dramatic, social changes developed. At first, these changes were subtle and were mostly witnessed by the younger generation. Moody's parents as well as the other adults around her continued to accept the mandates of segregation out of justified fear of KKK reprisals. However, despite the fears of her elders, the very young Moody experienced limited friendship with some white children, who lived close to her neighborhood. The children were curious about one another and shared toys for brief periods of play. This contact contrasts sharply with Wright's experience of brick-and-stone battles between groups of his black friends and groups of young white boys, who lived on the other side of the railroad tracks. They hurled their weapons at one another so violently that serious wounds often resulted.

Moody, on the other hand, relates that the son of one of her white employers openly flirted with her in front of his mother while Moody tutored the boy in Algebra. Two elements stand out in this scene: first, the blatant cross-racial flirtation and, second, the white mother's acknowledgement of Moody's intelligence and exceptional ability in math. During Wright's childhood, whites tended to believe that an education past eighth grade was a waste of time for most African-American children, who would grow up to hold only manual labor jobs. The majority of African Americans, whose poverty forced them to take jobs early, did not challenge these assumptions; few received high school diplomas. Black children were not expected to graduate from high school, let alone go on to college. Thirty years later, however, not only did Moody finish high school and proceed to college, she did so amid discussions, albeit heated ones, about the desegregation of schools.

In Wright's time, the legal precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) still dictated a separate but equal status to white and black populations throughout the states, with the sanction of the U. S. Supreme Court. It was through this court decision that the segregationist Jim Crow laws came into existence. Many prominent black leaders and intellectuals, during this time, became caught up in a debate over how to define the role of African Americans and how to fight for their civil rights. Conflicting philosophies disallowed agreement; the civil rights movement in Wright's time became embroiled in controversy and did not make much progress. Some groups, inspired by Marcus Garvey, advocated creating a Black Nation in the United States or moving to Africa. Another philosophy, based in part on Booker T. Washington's beliefs, stated that blacks should accommodate segregation and make the best of it.

However, during the 1950s, the political climate was changing, fueled in part by a new decision that was to counteract the older decree. From 1951 until 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court heard cases and finally made a decision in the case Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Due to this landmark ruling, segregation of all schools became unlawful. This court decision was the first major move toward the end of legal segregation in the United States.

Moody did not feel the full effects of desegregation in high school, but she cites that, shortly after her graduation, a new, and supposedly improved, "separate but equal" school was opened in her county under the influence of the 1954 court decision. It was not until she entered her junior year in college that Moody experienced a hint of school integration. She was very nervous about attending Tugaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, because most of its professors were white. Although Tugaloo was traditionally an African-American college, it did promote an integrated faculty. Moody was also warned by her friends that only "high-yellow" African-American students attended Tugaloo. This comment illustrates prejudice within the black community based on skin color. Moody's skin was dark. In addition to feeling that her skin might be too dark, she also was concerned about her educational background, fearing that the white professors would demand more of her than she could fulfill given the education she received in the impoverished African-American school system. However, she soon rid herself of these apprehensions, especially after her first term grades, which renewed her confidence in her intelligence and preparedness.

" Wright had the courage to expose his most personal emotions through his writing; while Moody fought off her fears in an effort to break the barriers that inhibited African-American life."

With only a ninth-grade education, Wright taught himself. He was a voracious reader. Every night upon returning home from work, he devoured books on psychology, philosophy, sociology, and classic literature. In addition to this study, he found intellectual stimulation by joining young, highly educated adults (mostly white) in writers' groups that had been created during Roosevelt's administration which spanned the Great Depression. At this time, Wright left the South and moved to Chicago in desperation. He feared that if he remained in Mississippi, or in Tennessee where he had subsequently moved, he would be killed. His hunger for knowledge and personal freedom would not be tolerated in the oppressive environment of the South.

In Chicago Wright became interested in the Communist Party, which was at that time the most prominent political movement for equal rights. The Party promoted labor unions, social security, and a brotherhood that promised to be race neutral. Although Wright claimed that he did not have political interests, he eventually influenced the course of the civil rights movement. He influenced others through his writing, which took on an angry tone. His books, Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, and finally his autobiography, Black Boy, presented deeply personal, painfully realistic depictions of African-American experience. National bestsellers, his books affected African-American authors who followed Wright and the white population in both the North and South who read them. Many white people in the South would deny that what Wright had described was true, but other, more liberal whites, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president, were educated and emotionally moved by Wright's work.

Moody's political activism took a different path. While she also became a writer, she first committed herself to trying to create change in the African-American community. Moody was in college during the 1960s, a decade when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was about to achieve some of its goals. Inspired by one of the NAACP's most outstanding speakers, Medgar Evans, Moody took part in a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. She was assaulted by a group of white hecklers who quickly gathered at the scene, while white police offices stood outside watching—a scene of law enforcement passivity that repeated many times. This was the first of many such acts of defiance against the Jim Crow laws in which Moody was involved. Jackson, Mississippi, was soon the subject of national attention as groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) focused their activities there. Mississippi was one of the poorest and most radically racist states in the South during the 1960s. Moody was right in the middle of this tension.

Moody worked hard, ending up in jail several times, depleting her health at other times, and trying hard to ignore threats against her life, all in the name of freedom. The main thrust of her political activity was to get Southern black people registered to vote. Although she fought hard, her book, Coming of Age in Mississippi, ends on a note of frustration. The precise date at the end of her autobiography is not clear, but Moody writes the words, "I wonder. I really wonder," referring to her doubts about the effects of all her work. Would the demonstrations, the political rallies, the sit-ins, the fights for voters' rights ever make a difference?

It is also unclear what Moody has done with the remaining years of her life, as she refuses interviews, tired of public attention. Rumors have her living in New York, removed from many of the reminders of her Southern childhood. In the end, Wright's and Moody's lives once again take on similar elements. Wright, frustrated and demoralized by prejudice in the United States, made a permanent move to Europe during the last decade of his life. Both writers, once fueled by the anger caused by injustice, turned their frustrations into unselfish acts. Wright had the courage to expose his most personal emotions through his writing; while Moody fought off her fears in an effort to break the barriers that inhibited African-American life. They chose different ways to voice their antagonism, and then both of them, as if depleted by the intensity of their work, disappeared from the scene.


Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Coming of Age in Mississippi, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Laura Kryhoski

Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer. In this essay, she considers Moody's work as it relates to events of the Civil Rights movement.

"I couldn't believe it, but it was the Klan blacklist, with my picture on it. I guess I must have sat there for about an hour holding it," says Moody in her autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi. In Moody's response to the list, it is easy to see that she is different, different, in fact, from many young teenagers of her race, gender, time. She is one of the many voices of the Civil Rights movement, one of the unsung heroes courageously following in the steps of Martin Luther King, Jr., to realize freedom and gain self-respect, for herself and for her people as well.

Early in the autobiography, the author describes her experience as a victim of racial injustice in a vivid example. In a particular moment in a local movie theater, Moody begins to understand the far reaching implications of the color divide, what it is to be black in her own community. Arriving at the same time as her white playmates, Moody and her siblings are naturally compelled to join their friends in the white lobby. Amidst the joy comes confusion, when Moody, along with her sister and brother, are violently snatched away from their friends; she writes, "when we got outside, we stood there crying, and we could hear the white children crying inside the white lobby." Moody explains, "I never really thought of them as white before. Now all of a sudden they were white, and their whiteness made them better than me." Moody's curiosity, her need to question the world around her, is perhaps also defined at this moment. Moody is determined to discover the meaning the skin color imposes on friendships and the secret to the benefits of being white. Playing the game doctor, she looks over her white friend's "privates," and puzzled, responds, "I examined each of them three times, but I didn't see any differences. I still hadn't found that secret." Moody is not content to accept the role society imposes on her. As a child, she is able to question social convention, and this ability defines her actions throughout the autobiography.

Moody continues to push at the boundaries of society, in part as a way to define her individuality, her blackness. After the wife of a Klan member mentions the NAACP over tea, Moody asks her mother to elaborate and receives harsh words; Momma commands her never to mention "that word" to "no other white person." Moody responds, "With a momma like that you'll never learn anything." Without hesitation she asks another adult about the organization and is offered five hours of history from a teacher who eventually disappears. As Moody learns about the NAACP, and as events in the community unfold, Moody's refusal to remain silent increases her sense of alienation. In response to the racism and violence surrounding her, Moody states, "I couldn't go on pretending I was dumb and innocent, pretending I didn't know what was going on … I was sick of pretending, sick of selling my feelings for a dollar a day." Apart from her racial identity, she is truly a woman of unusual beauty, as well as intellect. These gifts certainly distinguish her from her peers. Moreover, her wisdom, her clarity of vision, and purpose, all set her apart from her classmates. It is this different perception and the willingness to act on it that isolate Moody from the people most familiar to her.

Moody's refusal to accept social limitation and her dogged determination to rise above her family circumstances put her in conflict with those close to her. This conflict further alienates Moody. There is a force moving Moody, a spirit compelling her to do the next right thing. Prior to her attendance at her first NAACP convention she receives a condemning letter from her mother. Moody comments on the probable reaction of her hometown of Centreville to her participation: "I knew I could never go to Centreville safely … I kept telling myself that I didn't really care too much about going home … it was more important to me to go the convention." This sense of spirit, this willingness to forsake her former life to follow her beliefs about activism, pervades the text. In her quest for civil equality, Moody takes a stand without family support. In letters, her mother repeatedly pleads with Moody, as she summarizes here: "Why was I trying to get myself killed? [Momma] kept asking. What was I trying to prove?" Moody reports that her mother pointed out the uselessness of trying to change racial givens in the South: "Over and over again she said that after I was dead things would still be the same as they were now." Moody's participation in CORE does not come without great personal expense—to support the group's efforts, she sacrifices teenage life, the support of her family, and possibly her future.

The courage Moody demonstrates in her quest for social equality is phenomenal considering the humiliation and danger she confronts. Ketchup, mustard, and sugar are smeared all over her hair and clothing at a lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth's. After another arrest on a hot summer day, Moody and fellow marchers are confined in a police wagon with no water or air with the vehicle's heater left on to torture them. In this instance, her release from the truck does not earn her freedom. Moody and her companions are herded into cattle buildings at the State Fairgrounds, surrounded by barbed wire, guarded with policemen bearing rifles. Her immediate associations are those of Nazi Germany: to her the Nazi soldiers "couldn't have been any rougher than these cops." In another moment, with only the tall grass to disguise her, Moody hides with other residents of Sonny's house to avoid being killed by white vigilantes.

In addition to danger, Moody faces repeated rejection by members of her own race. The role of a CORE worker is not only dangerous but also thankless. Time and time again Moody's work goes unfulfilled. In one instance, she responds to the murder of Medgar Evers by taking the opportunity to recruit students at Jackson State College for a march. After a heartfelt speech, Moody's frustration shows: "How could Negroes be so pitiful? How could they just sit by and take all this [sh—] without any emotions at all? I just didn't understand." Any success in her work is tempered by the prospect of interference by hostile whites. In Canton, for example, Moody speaks of the great success CORE realizes in its ability to gain support of the black community. Although large numbers of blacks register to vote, only a few are actually registered; the rest are rejected by white members of the community who oversee the process. To face such passivity and frustration, to meet danger head on and continue to work for the advancement of Civil Rights despite great personal risk, these traits distinguishes Moody from her fellows. Her vision and what she personally describes as her inability to suppress feelings of discontent motivate her.

" The courage Moody demonstrates, in her quest for social equality, is phenomenal considering the humiliation and danger she confronts."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights leader, wrote Why We Can't Wait, a classic exploration of the events and forces behind the Civil Rights movement. In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King discusses what propels the movement in the face of great opposition and at such great personal expense. The objective in a nonviolent direct-action program for King, first and foremost, is "to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will eventually open the door to negotiation." The impact of sit-ins, of peaceful demonstrations is found in the activities of the objectors. By subjecting themselves to violence and abuse without retaliation, King recognized the power of creating crisis to "foster such a tension that the community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue." In light of racial violence that has historically plagued the black community, King's vision is not hard to understand. He adds, "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' … This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never."' In King's view, this justice too long "delayed" is "justice denied." The motivations of Moody and countless others are beautifully summed-up by King, as he explains why "we" can't wait.

when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Moody's autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi is more than just the story of a young woman's transitions into adulthood. It is the chronicle of a brave young woman who refuses to sacrifice her self-respect, a woman who stands up for her beliefs, despite great personal cost. The final words of her personal account mirror the frustration of such taxing work. As she sits listening to her friends singing, "We shall overcome," she responds: "I wonder. I really wonder." One has to wonder how such vision, such courage, carried Moody in her journey, and if she, like many of us, is still wondering today.


Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on Coming of Age in Mississippi, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Degler, C. N., Review, in Nation, January 11, 1969, p. 83.

Ellmann, Mary, Review, in Nation, January 6, 1969, p. 26.

Kennedy, Edward M., Review, in New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1969, p. 5.

King, Martin Luther, Jr., Why We Can't Wait, Penguin, 1964, pp. 79-82.

Stevens, Shane, Review, in Book World, December 1, 1968, p. 28.

Wright, Richard, Black Boy, HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.

Further Reading

Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, Touchstone Books, 1989.

The first book of a two-volume series, this formidable social history profiles Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the other key players and events that helped shape the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Dittmer, John, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, University of Illinois Press, 1995.

This history covers the fight for racial equality in Mississippi from the post—World War II years through 1968.

Hampton, Henry, ed., Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, Bantam Books, 1991.

Creating a fascinating narrative, the creator and executive producer of the PBS series The Eyes on the Prize draws on nearly one thousand interviews with activists, politicians, officials, and ordinary people who took part in the civil rights movement.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed., The Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Reader, Penguin, 1991.

One of several companion pieces to the PBS Eyes on the Prize television series, this book collects over 100 court decisions, speeches, interviews, and other documents on the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1990.