It’s been over 50 years since Anne Moody published Coming of Age in Mississippi in 1968. The autobiography chronicles Anne’s life growing up in the Deep South at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, making it one of few works that candidly details rural Black life during the 1940s and 1950s. Through the use of vignettes, Anne articulates a life under constant threat of white terror and extreme deprivation. We come to understand unyielding racial hatred through the eyes of a Black girl as she theorizes the complexity of Black suffering, which led her to a life of activism in the violent fight for freedom.
Anne’s role in the movement, like many other heroines, has not received the same attention as her male counterparts. As a student at Tougaloo College, Anne connected with fellow activists in the SNCC, NAACP, and CORE where she participated in voter registration drives and sit-ins. Barely twenty-three years old, Anne ran a Freedom House in Canton, Mississippi, aiding the community around her amid looming fear. The fuel igniting her on a path where her life would be threatened daily began with her earliest memories.
Born September 15, 1940, Anne was the oldest of five. Anne and her sister, at the time, lived with their parents in a wooden, damp, two-room dwelling that resembled the dwellings of all the other Black families sharecropping for Mr. Carter. Almost always hungry, Anne became perceptive of the fact that no amount of hard work would ever fill her belly. From the tender age of four, she began to notice the sharp contrasts between her family’s rotten dwelling and the big house up the hill where the white owners resided. As she got older she saw these contrasts as symptomatic of a system that extended far beyond her rural town of Centerville. An observation that eventually led her to see Black skin as the primary factor that rendered Black people vulnerable to danger in Mississippi.
Anne saw firsthand the injustices and disparities in wealth, services, and rights that separated Black people from white people. All of the Black people around her were forced into a life of survival and service without complaint. Anne, rejected the system that forced Black people into a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. At the age of fifteen she had developed a critical consciousness of race and began to seek out the NAACP, which, at the time, was viewed as threatening to white people and any utterance of the organization could result in death.
To help her family, Anne cleaned for Mrs. Burke, whom she described as the meanest white lady in town. Mrs. Burke often had Anne tidy up when she entertained guests. Working in the background, Anne was privy to the latest gossip and brazen racist rhetoric. One week before starting high school, Anne, during one of Mrs. Burke’s gatherings, overheard the women discussing the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till and the NAACP. Even before Emmett’s murder, Anne had heard stories of Black people found floating in rivers, their bodies riddled with bullets or beaten to death. Till’s death, however, revealed the mystery behind all the other Black deaths. As she cleaned, Anne overheard the vile way in which the white women spoke of Emmett Till. Because she was also fourteen, Anne noticed that the women did not regard Emmett as a child, but rather a Northern Negro who did not know his place, thus receiving the proper penalty. Detecting the derision in the women’s discussion of the NAACP, Anne instantly knew it was something for Black people.
Simultaneously engulfed in Black suffering while witnessing the excitement among white people over Emmett Till’s death, Anne recalled entering high school “with a completely new insight into the life of Negroes in Mississippi.” Hating white people for their responsibility for the countless murders of Black people, Anne also resented Black people for not standing up to white people.
It had been almost ten years since I last read Moody’s autobiography. The inhumane conditions at Parchman penitentiary that drew hundreds of people to Mississippi’s State Capitol in January 2020 to demand the prison’s closing caused me to revisit Coming of Age in Mississippi. With fresh eyes, I connected with Anne’s eventual apprehension that this nation will ever grant freedom to Black people. Like everyone around the world, I see and hear of the police violence against Black bodies that led to the murders of Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice. Yet, the hyper-visibility of state-sanctioned anti-Black violence has failed to garner a national outcry.
I recalled Anne’s retort to a friend’s attempts to console her with religion when they heard about the Birmingham Church bombing that killed four Black girls: “Black people have religion and white people have everything else.” In anguish, Anne expressed her disillusionment with Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach.
Anne generously shared her raw emotions in response to the traumatizing events that characterized Black life. It is through these emotions that I, a daughter of Jim Crow survivors from Mississippi, connected with Anne.
Anne’s autobiography is a testament to the harsh realities of deep-seated Black hatred—designed, normalized, and sanctioned by the state. Throughout her life, Anne invites readers into a world of relentless brutality condoned by the state. As a country, the United States celebrates monuments of freedom as if they erase all the systems instituted with the establishment of the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787. Instituted by the Constitutional Congress of the newly forming United States, the Three-Fifths Compromise combined with the definition of enslaved people of African descent as chattel provided the ideological justification for the policing of Black bodies, both literally and symbolically. Through this legislation slave owners employed policing and punishing tactics that restricted the movement of their property−enslaved men and women. This system also meant that they controlled every aspect of the enslaved body. Parchman penitentiary is a remnant of this system that has largely gone unproblematized.
The whitewashing of the Civil Rights Movement reflects the asymmetry in the way the movement is portrayed, which over-emphasizes the nonviolent aspects while the extreme violence conveniently gets filed away in national amnesia. Distorted accounts of a time marked by white terrorism obscure the parallels between Erica Garner, for example, and Anne Moody. Erica, born fifty years after Anne, advocated for police reform after her father, Eric Garner, was murdered by the police in 2014. At twenty-seven years old, Erica’s life ended due to a heart attack. The internal violence the United States enacts against Black people drove Erica to a life of activism in the same way Anne was driven. Coming of Age in Mississippi bears witness to the state-condoned violence against Black people in the mid-20th century, and the death of Erica Garner signals the continuity of this violence over time and space.
Anne’s disillusionment on the bus ride to the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) hearing in Washington in 1964 reveals her grasp of the enormity of Black racial hatred in the United States. Rooted in centuries-old white conditioning, expressed through a system that condoned lynching of Black bodies and white terrorism to thrive, anti-Blackness was understood by Anne as a chronic illness that the movement could not cure. Anne’s accounts of this illness provide a framework for understanding the virus that led to the election of Cindy Hyde-Smith to the U.S. Senate even after she was overheard on a video posted to Twitter saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Mississippi arguably holding the highest number of public lynchings is not a fact that was met with deep regret and shame. Rather such statements of approval signal one’s commitment to the illness of Black racial hatred. Cindy’s election and endorsement by President Trump in 2018 was a response to this commitment and illustrate how anti-Blackness is a thriving and valued trait in the United States. The erasure of this illness that manifests in white violence can be traced from the Three-Fifths Compromise to the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Black Lives Matter sheds a fresh light on the violence that troubled Anne, illuminating the unending warfare the United States has always had against Black people. When Covid-19 emerged, anxiety over wearing masks and getting sick while Black was palpable. Many Black people became hyper-vigilant of the white terrorism that a national pandemic would draw to the surface. Within a few weeks of a quarantine, armed white anti-quarantine protesters descended across the county.
Coming of Age in Mississippi reminds us that it is imperative to continually examine new forms of white terror and anti-Blackness that extend beyond the criminal justice system into the geopolitics of Black life in urban and rural areas. The erasure of Black life Anne poignantly describes has lulled us into a false sense of freedom when we fail to see Anne’s struggles as our own, though we may live in different ages.
It was on Anne’s birthday, September 15, 1963, when she woke up to a special news bulletin that reported the Birmingham church bombing. After spending time alone to process the traumatic event, Anne returned home and put on a Ray Charles record and listened as he said, “Feeling sad all the time, that’s because I got a worried mind. The world is in an uproar, the danger zone is everywhere. Read your paper, and you’ll see just exactly what keep worrying me.” Anne said it was like he was speaking to her.