Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783
Born in rural Mississippi, Anne Moody grows up in a sharecropper’s shack without electricity on a plantation. Though the Moodys are several generations removed from slavery being legal, their economic circumstances represent the legacy of slavery that still pervades the Southern United States, as former slaves sometimes became sharecroppers on their former masters’ property. The economic hardships faced by the Moodys are only compounded by the departure of Anne’s father, leaving Anne’s mother to support herself and her children alone. The intersection of gender and race severely limits the opportunities available to Anne’s mother, and as a result, she is oftentimes too busy working to truly care for her children. Though circumstances improve slightly when Raymond builds the family a house, their continued financial difficulties reflect the harsh realities of being Black in the rural South.
Anne’s interactions with Mrs. Burke and her observations about the economic disparities between Black and White people awaken her recognition of racial injustice. This awakening is compounded by the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black boy who was murdered by a lynch mob for allegedly whistling suggestively at a White woman. Till posthumously became an icon of the civil rights movement, and his death represented the longstanding legacy of mob justice that racist White people inflicted on Black people who were perceived to have “forgotten their place.” Anne is drawn to Till’s story, and she resents that her family and the majority of Centreville refuse to even acknowledge the event. Her mentor, Mrs. Rice, encourages her to find hobbies in order to distract her from her mounting anger over racism and injustice. Anne follows the advice, both as a means of venting her anger and as a way of guaranteeing that she can leave Centreville after graduation
After graduating high school, Anne briefly works, but upon finding herself struggling financially, she attends Natchez, a college in Mississippi, on a scholarship. She finds the campus climate at Natchez oppressive and infantilizing, and she eventually transfers to Tougaloo College, where she joins the NAACP, or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Anne begins to participate actively in the civil rights movement, though her mother warns her against doing so. Anne's mother is afraid of the ways in which White authorities might retaliate against Anne and, later, Anne’s entire family. Anne’s mother’s fears are not unfounded, as Anne frequently encounters violent opposition. Many prominent civil rights leaders, such as Medgar Evars and Martin Luther King Jr., are assassinated as a result of their activities within the movement.
The majority of Anne’s activism is geared towards registering Black voters in the hopes of changing the legal landscape of the United States. She works for CORE, or the Congress of Racial Equality, and recruits volunteers to canvas Black neighborhoods. However, instead of finding an eager and engaged voting populace, she instead encounters a fearful and complacent public. She is further dismayed by the violence she encounters at the protests, marches, and sit-ins she participates in, and becomes fearful upon learning that she is on a Ku Klux Klan watch list. However, the event that truly seems to send Anne into a breakdown is the bombing of a Birmingham Church in 1963, resulting in the death of four Black children. These violent tactics seem designed to discourage civil rights activists through fear, intimidation, and hopelessness.
Anne at times also questions the wisdom of the male leaders of the movement, mainly preachers, who she feels are disconnected from the practical needs of rural Black communities. Anne has worked directly with rural voters for years, and she knows that the lofty ideals of the movement leadership are out-of-touch with the daily struggles and desires of those they are attempting to lead. However, she is also frustrated by the refusal of many rural Black people to register to vote or attempt to change their circumstances. She understands the fear that many of them have about being retaliated against by police or their White neighbors, but she still feels that many of them are shortsighted. She also grows frustrated by the number of Black people who are content to live in unequal circumstances. This attitude first emerges during her own high school graduation, when she disparages those who are pleased with the construction of a new segregated high school. Anne believes that the new school is merely an effort by White people to pacify Black people into accepting inequality. She later recognizes this misplaced contentment in her own family members and begins to question whether progress can truly be made if so many Black people are unwilling to fight for their own rights.