Today, Anne Moody is famous for two things: being one of the students who demanded service at the famous Woolworth’s lunch-counter sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi, and her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, which stands out as one of the classic autobiographies of American literature. Most leaders of the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and W. E. B. Dubois, were middle-class or even wealthy. Moody is unique in being the direct voice of the most oppressed rural blacks.
African Americans had won their freedom in the Civil War and were guaranteed equal rights under new amendments to the Constitution. But when the federal government stopped enforcing the rule of law in the South, whites terrorized blacks into second-class citizenship. Using the Jim Crow laws, whites effectively barred blacks from voting, and almost all public facilities were segregated. Jim Crow was in effect throughout the time period of Coming of Age in Mississippi. As Moody tries to register voters, their applications are denied for a variety of pretenses, among them useless voting tests and archaic requirements.
Like most African Americans in the rural South before the civil rights movement, Moody’s family worked as sharecroppers. Sharecropping, also called “tenant farming,” entails a farmer renting the land on which he farms. Often, the rent is paid as either a percentage or fixed amount of the crop. Before the Civil War, sharecropping was the way many rural southern whites eked out a living. With the end of slavery, most ex-slaves simply became sharecroppers, often on the same plantation on which they had worked as slaves. Academics have argued that in economic terms, sharecropping can be as exploitative as slavery, since the landowner risks nothing if there is a bad crop.
In 1968, when Coming of Age in Mississippi was released, critics tended to focus less on the book’s value as a work of literature, looking at it instead as social commentary and an exposé of racism in the South. The civil rights movement was beginning to run out of steam. The Voting Rights Act and the repeal of numerous Jim Crow laws had already granted blacks the legal rights the movement demanded. But it became increasingly obvious that these political rights would not mean an end to the poverty and suffering of most blacks. The Vietnam War drafted many of the young black men who had helped form its base and also took away headlines and resources from the fight for civil rights. Moody and others believed that the civil rights movement’s leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., relied too heavily upon nonviolent demonstrations and rallies that were proving largely ineffective. The closing chapters of Coming of Age stress the need to reinvigorate the movement.
Moody has said publicly that when she wrote her autobiography, she considered herself an activist, not a writer. A review in The Nation called Coming of Age “crude and undeniable and, against all principles of beauty, beautiful.” Today, the book is assigned in literature courses, as well as history and social science courses. Of all the tens of thousands of memoirs, social exposés, and historical narratives, Coming of Age is one of the few still widely taught today.