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Anne Moody, who died in 2015, is best remembered for two things: being one of the students who demanded service at the famous May 28, 1963, Woolworth’s lunch-counter sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi, and her 1968 autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, which stands out as a classic autobiography of both American history and American literature. Many leaders of the civil rights movement were from middle-class backgrounds. Moody, however, was a direct voice of the most oppressed rural Black people.
Black Americans had won their freedom in the Civil War, were guaranteed equal rights under new amendments to the Constitution, and were the focus Reconstruction efforts led by the federal government. But when Reconstruction was abandoned in the face of overwhelming opposition from Southern whites, the federal government stopped enforcing the rule of law in the South and whites officials and groups including the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Black people into second-class citizenship. Using the Jim Crow laws, whites effectively barred Black people 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 Black 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, in spite of its significant achievements, was looking for new ideas. The Voting Rights Act and the repeal of numerous Jim Crow laws had already granted Black people the legal rights the movement demanded, but it became increasingly obvious that these political rights alone would not mean an end to the poverty and suffering of most Black people. 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 she felt were proving ineffective. The closing chapters of Coming of Age in Mississippi stress the need to reinvigorate the movement.
Moody 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 in Mississippi “crude and undeniable and, against all principles of beauty, beautiful.” It was eventually published around the world in seven languages. In 1969, it won the Best Book of the Year award from the National Library Association. In the years after the publication of her autobiography, Moody published some short stories before largely retreating from public view. In a rare interview in 1985, Moody explained that her work and experiences during the height of the civil rights movement had left her in need of heal. She lived for a while in New York as a counselor for the City's Poverty Program. On February 5, 2015, Moody died in Gloster, Mississippi, at the age of 74.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Coming of Age in Mississippi!