Poverty and the grinding effects of racism

Civil Rights

Coming of Age in Mississippi is Anne Moody’s memoir of the civil rights movement in the United States. It therefore serves a different purpose as primary source historiography, rather than analytical secondary source historiography such as that written by David Garrow and Harvard. Moody grew up on a plantation, in conditions that are simply extensions of slavery. Her first hand awareness of what racism is, and what it does not just to individuals but whole communities, offers chilling contrast to the otherwise colder and more distant historical analyses. The “Childhood” section of Coming of Age in Mississippi details the harrowing conditions under which Moody was raised. Poverty and the grinding effects of racism on their souls have beaten down Moody’s family, and they take out their anger and frustration on their children. Anne’s father leaves the family for another woman, leaving Anne forced to work as a domestic servant when she is only nine years old because her family could not survive otherwise. Moody’s experiences with rank poverty are what shape Anne’s character and her response to racism.

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Sitkoff likewise draws economic issues into the race equation, surmising that the two issues are technically inseparable. Racism and poverty coexist. In “The Preconditions for Racial Change,” Sitkoff notes that race relations noticeably and measurably changed in the years ensuing the Great Depression. After World War Two, increasing numbers of African-Americans had access to factory jobs and related training programs. What Sitkoff also mentions is the fact that factory jobs and vocational training are not sufficient to overcome poverty and not enough for anyone to achieve upward social mobility. Black “buying power” might have improved as a result of economic growth, but black status remained unchanged.[footnoteRef:1] Sitkoff admits this fact as the historian traces the roots of the Civil Rights movement. Issues like pan-Africanism brought to light the unique status of African-Americans. [1: Sitkoff, Harvard. “The Preconditions for Racial Change,” p. 359.]

As she matures and develops her political philosophy, Moody understands quickly that poverty and race are linked. She also understands that structural inequities will not be overcome if class conflict issues remain brushed under the rug. Because of her acute understanding of class-consciousness as well as race consciousness, Anne Moody cannot join in the celebrations on the bus to Washington when she concludes her narrative. Her growing cynicism is not a result of her disillusionment with the core spirit of the movement, but rather, with the seemingly insurmountable odds that are stacked against non-whites in America. What Anne Moody means to talk about is institutionalized racism.

Anne remains committed to the fundamental goals of the civil rights movement, but she recognizes that on some level the movement has failed to tackle the deeper issues that plague black communities. She does not use the phrase “institutionalized racism,” but her worldview is predicated on an understanding that racism is institutionalized by restricting access to wealth and cultural capital.

Anne first starts to realize the value of cultural as well as financial capital when she moves in with her father and his new wife Emma. Emma has light skin, which raises the issue of her potential to achieve a higher social status, if not actually “pass.” With Emma, Anne becomes increasingly aware of the social hierarchies that permeate American society and which are based on one being of the dominant European/white caste vs. The disenfranchised and subordinate classes. As she considers matters related to skin color, Anne is aware that her mother is dark-skinned. Her mother’s lowly role as cleaner represents her being of the lowest social class, corresponding with her dark coloring. Moreover, Anne notices that racism has become so entrenched in American society that blacks are racist against other blacks. This level of deep discourse is not something that Sitkoff or Garrow discuss in their less detailed analysis of race relations. If blacks can be racist towards other blacks, then there is little hope that racism can be overcome. A deeper type of collective action, not just protesting in the streets, has become necessary. A whole consciousness shift is needed.

The civil rights movement is not monolithic, as Cobbs-Hoffman and Blum point out in the Civil Rights Revolution section of part two of Major Problems in American History. The civil rights movement extended to gays, Chicanos, women, and other disenfranchised groups. Occasionally these different groups joined forces, but its overall lack of unity is another reason why Moody finds it difficult to remain optimistic. Each of the disenfranchised groups has different experiences with different goals in mind. For example, women are not all poor, and not all persons of color.

Moody spends the bulk of her political activism working exactly how Sitkoff describes the spirit of the movement, as a set of idealistic groups like the NAACP, empowered by influxes of money and power. However much these organizations did for breaking down the legal barriers related to racial parity, there were other layers of civil rights that Moody discusses and which are omitted from many historical analysis of the movement. For example, work accomplished by Martin Luther King, Jr. was directed toward judicious subverting of the black codes and social norms that perpetuate racism. All that was good and great; even Moody was swept up in the power and idealism of the movement.

Yet Moody also becomes disillusioned at what she feels is the lack of concrete vision for truly transforming the lives of African-Americans. She states, “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had ‘dreamers’ instead of leaders leading us. Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming.”[footnoteRef:2] Moody of course refers directly to Dr. Martin Luther King. The idealism was a dream, whereas Moody and others like her wanted more concrete action. In fact, too much idealism was harming the civil rights movement. [2: Moody, Anne, 1968. Coming of Age in Mississippi, p. 335.]

Mainly, Moody understands that the civil rights movement is being fought from within a white power structure. To achieve equality, the entire system needs to be dismantled and reconstructed. In this way, Anne Moody would have been more able to develop a cohesive civil rights code within the framework of Black Nationalism and the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, and his predecessor W.E.B. DuBois, encouraged black self-empowerment from outside of the frame of the dominant culture.

By the end of Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne has developed a mature and cohesive historical analysis that is more thorough than historians have granted to the movement in general. Moody has been hardened by poverty and the inability of structural inequities to budget in spite of the powerful legal action taken by groups like the NAACP. This is not to say she is unaware of the positive and radical transformations that the Civil Rights movement entailed. Yet Moody has been driven down by the lack of access to social, cultural, economic, and political power. Her formative years as a political activist were spent with seminal civil rights groups like the NAACP and CORE. These organizations do good work, as Sitkoff and Garrow both point out. The organizations represented the first time in history that African-americans from different geographic regions were able to pool resources and efforts in helping each other overcome racism. In the end, though, it seems like true racial parity in the United States remains just a dream.

In “A Leader for His Time: Martin Luther King, Jr.,” David Garrow offers exactly the type of cold, detached, and overly idealistic perspective that Moody’s narrative critiques. Her experience as a domestic is by far the issue that most makes Moody embittered about race relations in America. Moody spent much of her childhood watching her mother be beaten down by the system, and then finding herself in a similar position in spite of her apparent academic aptitudes. Anne watches the white children that she watches at work thrive because they are white and have white privilege. Anne does very well in school, but she soon realizes there is a glass ceiling when it comes to access to higher education. These structural inequities are what makes Anne Moody seem cynical compared with many historians.

Ideally, a synthesis between the idealism and realism of the Civil Rights movement will prevail. Experiences like those of Anne Moody show that the Civil Rights movement was not the end of struggle. The struggle for racial parity continues because structural inequities and institutionalized racism have created the problems that continue to plague black communities. Moody’s narrative complements and challenges the traditional historiographies, just as it is necessary to read Malcolm X as well as Dr. King. Traditional histories of civil rights tend to whitewash their material and favor the joys while overlooking the many sorrows.


Cobbs-Hoffman and Blum, Edward J., 2012. Major Problems in American History, Volume II. Cengage.

Garrow, David J. “A Leader for his Time.”

Moody, Anne, 1968. Coming of Age in Mississippi. Random House.

Sitkoff, Harvard. “Preconditions for Racial Change.”

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