Coming of Age in Mississippi covers a span of nineteen years, from when Anne is four to twenty-three years old. Moody’s own personal evolution parallels and symbolizes the development of the civil rights movement. Anne Moody was born Essie May Moody in 1940. She grew up in Wilkerson County, a rural county marked by extreme poverty and racism. Her family spent time working on plantations until her father deserted the family. Her mother worked as a maid for various white families, as did Anne, in order to supplement her family’s meager income. Just as the civil rights movement was maturing in the early 1950s, Anne also was maturing as a young woman. She was also becoming increasingly conscious of racial inequalities. With the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, Anne first heard of the NAACP and began thinking of the possibility of overthrowing the institutions that oppressed African Americans.
Toosweet and the rest of the family do not understand Anne’s ambitions. Around the time that Anne is graduating from high school in the late 1950s, the movement to end segregation has prompted the government to build new, better schools for black students. But Anne believes that they should not settle for anything less than complete equality as represented by integration. Even when Anne graduates from college, her family does not attend the ceremony. Anne’s separation from them is symbolic of the civil rights movement’s necessary break with the older, limited realities of southern blacks. It is also a very painful, personal coming of age. Anne’s conflict with her family is one of the most universal aspects of Coming of Age in Mississippi.
In many ways, Toosweet represents the older generation of rural African Americans in the deep South. She is constantly struggling to survive yet terrified of risking what little she has to challenge the system of inequality. But Toosweet is not just a symbol. As Moody’s mother, she is portrayed as a real person with real concerns and real fears. In many ways, as much as she symbolizes the older generation’s resistance to change, she also makes that resistance seem very understandable. Toosweet’s relationship with Anne becomes increasingly strained as Anne grows older and her horizons broaden. Toosweet becomes an obstacle to Anne, as she clings to her daughter and encourages her to become more like everyone else in their rural community. Toosweet does push her daughter to succeed in school, but her reason for wanting Anne to succeed is largely to prove to her new husband’s family that her children are the equals of their daughters. She does not think about her daughter attending college; in fact, when Anne’s gym teacher and coach pursues her romantically, Toosweet urges her to marry him.
Anne’s frustration with her mother is understandable. Still, Toosweet’s sadness at seeing her daughter distance herself from the family is poignant. Toosweet realizes that, in leaving behind her family’s way of life, Anne is starting to look down on her family. Anne even takes the opportunity of a mistake on her birth certificate to change her name from the one her mother gave her. Toosweet resists, but ultimately she gives in to her persuasive daughter. After Anne graduates from high school, she realizes that she has ignored her mother’s feelings in order to preserve her own ambition. She does not regret what she has done, but she also recognizes the pain her mother feels. Toosweet is most troubled by Anne’s involvement in the civil rights movement. She receives threats from the local sheriff that Anne must not return to town or she will be killed. Soon, her son Junior is nearly lynched and her brother Buck is beaten up because of Anne’s actions. Terrified, she writes letters to Anne begging her to quit the movement. Anne refuses.
Mrs. Burke is one of the numerous white women for whom Anne works as a maid. The nastiest and most blatantly racist, she is the closest portrait of prejudice in the book. Though Mrs. Burke ultimately gives Anne grudging respect, she still distrusts the majority of African Americans and remains ardently opposed to integration. Mrs. Burke demonstrates just how senseless and destructive the whites’ prejudice is against blacks.