Coming of Age in Mississippi Summary

Coming of Age in Mississippi is a 1968 autobiography by Anne Moody in which Moody recounts having grown up during the turbulent civil rights movement.

  • After entering high school, Anne notices an escalation in racial tensions in her hometown of Centreville.
  • Anne earns a scholarship to Tugaloo College, where she becomes involved in the civil rights movement. She receives several death threats as a result.
  • Fearing for her life, Anne briefly moves from Mississippi, to New Orleans to live with her sister. She later returns to Mississippi and joins a delegation heading to Washington, DC, to testify in front of Congress.

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Last Updated on July 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1394

Introduction

Coming of Age in Mississippi is a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody in which Moody recounts her childhood in rural Mississippi and her subsequent journey towards becoming a civil rights activist. The memoir was positively received, and it won the Best Book of the Year Award from the National Library Association. Critics praised Moody’s nuanced depiction of the civil rights movement, including her criticisms of the racism and classism within certain activist circles.

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Part One: Childhood

Anne Moody, called Essie Mae for much of her childhood, spends the first four years of her life in a sharecropper’s shack on a plantation in Mississippi. When Anne’s father has an affair and develops a gambling problem, Anne’s mother, nicknamed Twosweet, moves to Centreville, Mississippi, with her three children. Though Toosweet works several jobs, she still struggles to support her family. Soon after moving to Centreville, Toosweet has her fourth child with a soldier named Raymond.

Raymond builds a house for Toosweet and the children near his own family’s home, giving them a sense of stability at last. However, though Raymond and his family are also Black, they look down on Toosweet and her children as a result of their darker skin. Eventually, Toosweet and Raymond marry, despite not having received a blessing from Raymond’s family. Meanwhile, Anne begins taking on domestic work for White families in order to help support her own family. One of Anne’s employers, Linda Jean, is kind to her and pays Anne a higher-than-average wage. However, Linda Jean’s mother, Mrs. Burke—a known racist—encourages Linda Jean to lower Anne’s wages and warns her to be less familiar with Anne on account of their different races. Anne considers Mrs. Burke to have been her first experience with outright racial prejudice.

Though she devotes most of her free time to working, Anne still excels in school. She becomes homecoming queen and maintains high grades. Anne changes her name from Essie Mae to Annie Mae after receiving a copy of her birth certificate indicating that her name was falsely recorded as Annie Mae at birth. The summer after Anne graduates from junior high, Toosweet has another child. Raymond is forced to look for work in another state, and Anne reluctantly takes a job working directly for Mrs. Burke.

Part Two: High School

Shortly after Anne begins high school, a Black teenager named Emmett Till is murdered by a lynch mob for allegedly flirting with a White woman. This event, combined with Mrs. Burke’s racist comments and behavior, fuels Anne’s sense of injustice, and she grows increasingly angry with the world around her. Till’s death is treated as a taboo within the community, and the Black citizens of Centreville continue pretending that nothing is wrong. Anne eventually finds a mentor in her teacher Mrs. Rice, who teaches her about the NAACP and the ongoing struggle for racial equality. However, Mrs. Rice warns Anne not to mention their conversations, as Mrs. Rice could be fired. Mrs. Rice is ultimately fired anyway.

Angry and disillusioned with the social climate in Centreville, Anne spends the summer after her freshman year of high school working in Louisiana. However, she encounters numerous struggles in Louisiana, including a couple who leaves town without paying her. 

Anne returns to Centreville for school, but she finds her family’s unwillingness to discuss issues surrounding racism frustrating. She dedicates herself to her studies and vows to leave Centreville after graduating from high school. She continues to work for Mrs. Burke in the meantime, who hires Anne as a tutor for her son, Wayne. However, Mrs. Burke becomes angry when Wayne takes a friendly interest in Anne, and the tutoring stops. Anne eventually quits working for Mrs. Burke altogether after Mrs. Burke falsely accuses Anne’s brother of stealing.

Anne spends the next summer in New Orleans with her relatives and finds work at a factory. Upon returning to Centreville, Anne feels even more estranged from her family and devotes herself to school and sports in order to avoid them. The next summer, she returns to New Orleans and works in a café, which she enjoys. She meets a number of interesting and friendly people, and one of her coworkers offers her advice on how to arrange her hair and do her makeup. This causes a stir upon her return to Centreville, and Anne begins to attract attention for her looks. When Anne notices that Raymond has developed a sexual interest in her, she grows even more distant from her family and eventually decides to go live with her father and his new wife, Emma.

Living with her father and Emma is at first an improvement for Anne, as she enjoys the company of Emma’s relatives. However, after Emma’s foot is horribly injured in an accident, she grows hostile towards Anne. Anne graduates from high school and makes plans to return to New Orleans to work during the summer. However, she visits her mother in Centreville first, and the two reconcile.

Part Three: College

Despite working through the summer, Anne finds herself desperately poor. She writes a letter to her former basketball coach, who informs her that she is eligible for a basketball scholarship. Anne is accepted to Natchez University in Mississippi. Anne quickly finds the conservative atmosphere of the university oppressive. In her second year, she dates a fellow basketball player, but she eventually breaks up with him after she begins to resent the pressures surrounding relationships in college.

Anne gets into trouble with the school administration when she organizes a dining hall strike after several students find maggots in their food. Despite her actions, the school administrators are fond of Anne, and they help her apply for a scholarship at Tougaloo College, the best Black college in the state.

At Tougaloo, Anne quickly makes friends. One of Anne’s new friends is the secretary of Tougaloo’s NAACP chapter, and she invites Anne to join. Anne becomes increasingly invested in activism, and her grades suffer as a result. Undeterred, Anne and another student organize a voter registration drive through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and continue advocating for civil rights.

Part Four: The Movement

During her senior year at Tougaloo, Anne begins receiving letters from her family begging her to stop associating with the civil rights movement. Due to Anne’s activities, the police and other members of the Centreville community have begun targeting Anne’s family.

Frustrated, Anne nevertheless continues her efforts, dismayed by her family’s inability to comprehend the importance of her activism. She participates in a number of demonstrations, including a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. Anne is eventually arrested and jailed, and she begins to receive even more urgent letters from Centreville.

Anne starts working at the CORE offices in Canton, Mississippi, as a part of the effort to register Black voters. However, she is repeatedly disappointed by the Black community’s refusal to register. Anne and her fellow activists are targeted by the local police, and Anne is dismayed when her friends Mr. and Mrs. Chinn are driven out of business due to their activism. Anne attends the March on Washington in 1963, but is ambivalent about the messages of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She feels that its optimistic idealism is out of touch with the grueling and dangerous work that she and her CORE coworkers have been doing. 

After learning that she has been placed on a KKK watch list, Anne takes a break from activism. She attempts to visit her family in New Orleans but finds that nearly all of her relatives aside from her sister Adline actively resent her. After the Kennedy assassination, Anne returns to activist work, this time attempting to register voters in New Orleans. 

Anne becomes increasingly disillusioned with the civil rights movement, as she believes that people are sacrificing their lives and livelihoods without achieving any results. She decides to attend her graduation from Tougaloo, but no one from her family attends. The novel ends as Anne joins a group of young activists on their way to Washington, DC, for another march. She reflects that she is unsure of whether her work has had any impact on the Black community, and she laments that Black people may never achieve true equality.

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