Anne Moody, a civil rights activist whose memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, unsparingly chronicled the deprivations and injustice she witnessed as a black woman in the Jim Crow South, has died at her home in Gloster, Mississippi. She was 74.
Nearly half a century after its publication, Moody's 1968 autobiography remains a noted volume in the library of first-person accounts describing the inequality suffered by African Americans of her era. The book recounted her upbringing in grinding poverty and the experience of discrimination and violence that propelled her to join the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
"She is a rural Claude Brown," the late Senator Edward M Kennedy observed in a New York Times book review, referring to the author who wrote about urban black life in Manchild in the Promised Land. "Yet the book is far more than Claude Brown down home. It is also a history of our time, seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of someone who decided for herself that things had to be changed."
Moody became a student activist while attending Tougaloo College, a historically black institution in Mississippi. Medgar Evers, who was a field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in that state, called on young people to join the campaign to dismantle segregation. In 1963, Evers asked for volunteers for a demonstration that would emulate the lunch counter sit-ins held three years earlier at an F W Woolworth five-and-dime store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Moody was one of the first to respond.
On 28 May 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, she and several other activists sat down at the Woolworth lunch counter reserved for white customers. In a scene captured in a widely circulated photograph, Moody and the others were doused with condiments by onlookers. Edwin King, a chaplain of Tougaloo College, was present as an observer and said that he periodically phoned Evers to apprise him of developments. A mob attacked Moody and another female demonstrator, said King, who is white, and "literally dragged (them) by their hair. A man was thrown to the floor, beaten and kicked unconscious." Informed of the violence, Evers told Moody and the other demonstrators that they were free to leave, King said. But they remained and were joined by other protesters, black and white.
Among activists in the community, Moody and the others were treated as heroes. Outside the movement, however, she became a target for violence by the Ku Klux Klan. Her face appeared on a "wanted" poster, King recalled. Evers's image was also printed on the notice, but with an "X" through it; he was assassinated two weeks after the Jackson sit-in.
Moody was arrested for participating in a march in honour of Evers. Several months later, she attended the March on Washington, where the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech.
Moody graduated from Tougaloo and helped plan the events of 1964's Freedom Summer, King said, before moving to New York, where she wrote her memoir. "People had given their lives, or they had given everything they had of themselves," the former chaplain said. "She was one of those who gave everything she had."
Essie Mae Moody – she began using the name Anne as a teenager – was born on 15 September 1940, in Centreville, Mississippi. For a period, her mother worked as a domestic. "Sometimes Mama would bring us the white family's leftovers," Moody wrote in her memoir. "It was the best food I had ever eaten. That was when I discovered that white folks ate different from us. They had all kinds of different food with meat and all. We always had just beans and bread."
Moody wrote that she was nine years old when she had her first job – and 15 when she "began to hate people." She turned 15 shortly after the death of Emmett Till, the young black man who was accused of whistling at a white woman, and who was lynched in the Mississippi Delta. "Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil," she wrote. "But now there was a new fear known to me – the fear of being killed just because I was black."
Besides a 1975 collection of stories, Mr. Death, she left several unpublished manuscripts, according to her half-sister. Moody resettled in Mississippi in the early 1990s.
At the end of her memoir, Moody reflected on the events she had witnessed and remembered the words of the movement's anthem: "We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day."
"I wonder," she wrote. "I really wonder."
Anne Moody, civil rights activist and author: born Centreville, Mississippi 15 September 1940; married Austin Straus (divorced, one son); died Gloster, Mississippi 5 February 2015.
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