Anne’s own growth and maturation are symbolic of the concurrent growth and maturation of the civil rights movement. The symbolism is made possible by the fact that Anne’s maturity coincides very closely with the 1950s civil rights era. Since she is born in 1940, she becomes a precocious young adult around the early 1950s. Earlier, as a young child, she had already found that there were no real reasons to consider whites superior to blacks, which was an argument that the earliest civil rights thinkers had made. Early in the twentieth century, there had been failed attempts to stop lynching, and also to unionize black workers. It is in the early 1950s that a new civil rights movement is born that combines lawsuits with activism. In Mississippi, the movement is kicked off when the NAACP fights for the prosecution of the murderers of Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old visiting Mississippi from Chicago, who was supposedly murdered because he had whistled at a white woman. The murder occurs just as Anne is starting to become exasperated with racial inequalities and the ridiculous prejudices of many white people.
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, like the movement, realizes that they should not settle for anything less than complete equality as represented by integration. Once she is finally an adult, Anne realizes, as the movement must realize, that the future of the movement is in the youth, and the movement must focus on practical affairs. Symbolically, she has become an old woman, just as the civil rights movement has become mature and also faded. It is time for a younger generation, and a new version of the civil rights movement, to take over.
On the bus to Washington at the very end of Coming of Age, Anne sits down next to a twelve-year-old boy who has unbridled energy, contrasted with Anne’s exhaustion and frustration. The boy is symbolic of the younger generations who are the hope of the struggle for equality.
Clothing serves as an important symbol for transitions or stages of growth in Anne’s life. Tight blue jeans signal her maturation. The pageantry of homecoming, with her beautiful gown, marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood, though Anne is barely a teenager. As an activist, Anne buys clothing for children who have no school clothes, and she makes sure the movement distributes clothing to needy blacks in the area. She has grown from someone scraping to clothe herself and her own family to someone who can provide clothing for others.
When Anne graduates from college, clothing is once again an important symbol of transition and growth in her life: her sister Adline celebrates her college graduation by giving her a beautiful green dress. The green dress symbolizes both her attainment of a college degree and Adline’s acceptance of Anne’s goals. Earlier her family had not given her much support in her academic ambitions; no one had gone to her college graduation ceremony. Now Adline herself says she would like to get a college degree.
The importance of clothing as a symbol underscores Anne’s earlier poverty. Adline chooses between buying Anne a graduation present or paying to travel to her graduation; she cannot do both. This symbol demonstrates the way in which Anne’s growth as a person has been aligned with her basic struggle to survive.