Coming of Age in Mississippi



Coming
of Age in Mississippi

by Anne Moody was published in 1968 (now
available in paperback from Dell). The

Chicago Tribune

described
it as a “classic autobiography of growing up poor and black
in the rural south.” To many of us who were active in the 1960s,
this book was one of the first documents written by an activist
“in the trenches.” It also documents the courage, careful
planning, and organization it takes to confront power and ingrained
prejudices—in this case, a racist culture that whites were
ready to kill to defend. This excerpt is from Part 4: The Movement. 



D

uring my senior year at Tougaloo
College [in Mississippi], I had become friendly with my social science
professor, John Salter, who was in charge of NAACP activities on
campus. During the last week of school, he told me that sit-in demonstrations
were about to start in Jackson and that he wanted me to be the spokesperson
for a team that would sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter.
The two other demonstrators would be classmates of mine, Memphis
and Pearl- ena. Pearlena was a dedicated NAACP worker, but Memphis
had not been very involved in the Movement on campus. It seemed
that the organization had had a rough time finding students who
were in a position to go to jail. I had nothing to lose one way
or the other. Around ten o’clock the morning of the demonstrations,
NAACP headquarters alerted the news services. 


To divert attention from the sit-in at Woolworth’s, the picketing
started at JC Penney’s, a good 15 minutes before. The pickets
were allowed to walk up and down in front of the store three or
four times before they were arrested. At exactly 11 AM, Pearlena,
Memphis, and I entered Woolworth’s from the rear entrance.
We separated as soon as we stepped into the store and made small
purchases from various counters. At exactly 11:15 we were to take
seats at the counter. 


Seconds before 11:15 we were occupying three seats at the previously
segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter. In the beginning the
waitresses seemed to ignore us, as if they really didn’t know
what was going on. Our waitress walked past us a couple of times
before she noticed we had started to write our own orders down and
realized we wanted service. She told us that we would be served
at the back counter, which was for Negroes. 


“We would like to be served here,” I said. 


The waitress started to repeat what she had said, then stopped in
the middle of the sentence. She turned the lights out behind the
counter and almost ran to the back of the store, deserting all their
white customers. I guess she thought that violence would start immediately
after the whites at the counter realized what was going on. 


By this time a crowd of cameramen and reporters had gathered around
us taking pictures and asked questions, such as, “Where were
we from? Why did we sit-in? What organization sponsored it? Were
we students? From what school? How were we classified?” I told
them that we were all students at Tougaloo College, that we were
represented by no particular organization, and that we planned to
stay there even after the store closed. “All we want is service,”
was my reply. 


At noon students from a nearby white high school started pouring
in to Woolworth’s. When they saw us, they were sort of surprised.
They didn’t know how to react. A few started to heckle and
the newsmen became interested again. Then the white students started
chanting all kinds of anti-Negro slogans. We were called a little
bit of everything. The rest of the seats had been roped off to prevent
others from sitting down. A couple of the boys took one end of the
rope and made it into a hangman’s noose. Several attempts were
made to put it around our necks. The crowd grew as more students
and adults came in for lunch.







We kept our eyes straight forward and did not look at the crowd
except for occasional glances to see what was going on. Memphis
suggested that we pray. We bowed our heads and all hell broke loose.
A man rushed forward, threw Memphis from his seat, and slapped my
face. Then another man who worked in the store threw me against
an adjoining counter. Down on my knees on the floor, I saw Memphis
lying near the lunch counter with blood running out of the corners
of his mouth. Pearlena had been thrown to the floor. She and I got
back on our stools after Memphis was arrested. There were some white
Tougaloo teachers in the crowd. They asked Pearlena and me if we
wanted to leave. They said that things were getting too rough. We
didn’t know what to do. While we were trying to make up our
minds, we were joined by Joan Trumpauer. Now there were three of
us and we were integrated. The crowd began to chant, “Communists,
Communists, Communists.” Someone in the crowd ordered the students
to take us off the stools. 


A boy lifted Joan from the counter by her waist and carried her
out of the store. I was snatched from my stool by two high school
students and dragged about 30 feet toward the door by my hair when
someone made them turn me loose. As I was getting up off the floor,
I saw Joan coming back inside. We started back to the center of
the counter to join Pearlena. Lois Chaffee, a white Tougaloo faculty
member, was now sitting next to her. So Joan and I climbed across
the rope and sat down at the counter. There were now four of us,
two whites and two Negroes, all women. The mob started smearing
us with ketchup, mustard, sugar, pies, and everything on the counter. 


We sat there for three hours taking a beating when the manager decided
to close the store because the mob had begun to go wild with stuff
from the counters. He begged and begged everyone to leave. But after
15 minutes of begging, no one budged. Then Dr. Beittel, president
of Tougaloo College, came running in. He said he had just heard
what was happening. 


About 90 policemen were standing outside the store; they had been
watching the whole thing through the windows, but had not come in
to stop the mob or do anything. President Beittel went outside and
asked Captain Ray to come and escort us out. The captain refused,
stating the manager had to invite him in before he could enter the
premises, so Dr. Beittel brought us out. He told the police that
they had better protect us after we were outside the store. Within
ten minutes, we were picked up by Reverend King in his station wagon
and taken to the NAACP headquarters on Lynch Street. 


After the sit-in, all I could think of was how sick Mississippi
whites were. They believed so much in the segregated Southern way
of life, they would kill to preserve it. I sat there in the NAACP
office and thought of how many times they had killed when this way
of life was threatened. I knew that the killing had just begun.
Many more will die before it is over with, I thought. Before the
sit-in, I had always hated the whites in Mississippi. Now I knew
it was impossible for me to hate sickness. The whites had a disease,
an incurable disease in its final stage. What were our chances against
such a disease? 


There was a mass rally that night at the Pearl Street Church in
Jackson and the place was packed. People were standing two abreast
in the aisles. Before the speakers began, all the sit-inners walked
out on the stage and were introduced by Medgar Evers. People stood
and applauded for what seemed like 30 minutes or more. Medgar told
the audience that this was just the beginning of such demonstrations.
He asked them to pledge themselves to unite in a massive offensive
against segregation in Jackson and throughout the state. 


On Wednesday, the day after the sit-in, demonstrations got off to
a good start. Ten people picketed shortly after noon on Capitol
Street and were arrested. Another mass rally followed the demonstrations
that night where a six-person delegation of Negro ministers was
chosen to meet Mayor Thompson the following Tuesday. They were to
present him with a number of demands on behalf of Jackson Negroes.
They were as follows: 


  • Hiring of Negro police and school crossing guards 

  • Removal of segregation signs from public facilities 

  • Improvement of job opportunities for Negroes on city payrolls—Negro-driven
    city garbage trucks, etc. 

  • Encouraging public eating establishments to serve both whites
    and Negroes 

  • Integration of public parks and libraries 

  • The naming of a Negro to the City Parks and Recreation Committee 

  • Integration of public schools 

  • Forcing service stations to integrate rest rooms 


After
this meeting, Reverend Haughton, the minister of Pearl Street Church,
said that the Mayor was going to act on all the suggestions. But
the following day, Thompson denied that he had made any promises.
He said the Negro delegation “got carried away” following
their discussion with him. 


“It seems as though Mayor Thompson wants to play games with
us,” Reverend Haughton said at the next rally. “He is
calling us liars and trying to make us sound like fools. I guess
we have to show him that we mean business.” When Reverend Charles
A. Jones, dean and chaplain at Campbell College, asked at the close
of the meeting, “Where do we go from here?” the audience
shouted, “To the streets.” 


Around ten the next morning, an entire day of demonstrations started.
A bit of everything was tried. Some Negroes sat-in, some picketed,
and some squatted in the streets and refused to move. All of the
five-and-ten stores  had closed their lunch counters as a result
of the Woolworth sit-in. However, this did not stop the new sit-ins.
Chain restaurants were now targets. After 88 demonstrators had been
arrested, the mayor held a news conference where he told a group
of reporters, “We can handle 100,000 agitators.”








During this period, civil rights workers who had become known to
the Jackson police were often used to divert the cops’ attention
just before a demonstration. A few cops were always placed across
the street from NAACP headquarters since most of the demonstrations
were organized there and would leave from that building. The “diverters”
would get into cars and lead the cops off on a wild-goose chase.
This would allow the real demonstrators to get downtown before they
were noticed. One evening, a group of us took the cops for a tour
of the park. After giving the demonstrators time to get to Capitol
Street, we decided to go and watch the action. When we arrived there,
we met Reverend King and a group of ministers. They told us they
were going to stage a pray-in on the post office steps. “Come
on, join us,” Reverend King said. “I don’t think
we’ll be arrested because it’s federal property.” 


We entered the post office and found that part of the mob was waiting
inside the building. We didn’t let this bother us. As soon
as a few more ministers joined us, we were ready to go outside.
There were 14 of us, 7 whites and 7 Negroes. We walked out front
and stood and bowed our heads as the ministers began to pray. We
were immediately interrupted by Captain Ray. “We are asking
you people to disperse. If you don’t, you are under arrest,”
he said. Most of us were not prepared to go to jail. Doris Erskine,
a student from Jackson State, and I had to take over a workshop
the following day. Some of the ministers were in charge of the mass
rally that night. But if we had dispersed, we would have been torn
to bits by the mob. We had no other choice, but to be arrested. 


Reverend King and some of the ministers who were kneeling refused
to move; they just kept on praying. Some of the others also attempted
to kneel. The rest of us walked to the paddy wagon. After we got
to jail we were mugged and fingerprinted, then taken to a cell.
Most of the ministers were scared stiff. This was the first time
some of them had seen the inside of a jail. Before we were mugged,
we were all placed in a room together and allowed to make one call.
Reverend King made the call to the NAACP headquarters to see if
some of the ministers could be bailed out right away. I was so glad
when they told him they didn’t have money available at the
moment. I just got my kicks out of sitting there looking at the
ministers. Some of them looked so pitiful, I thought they would
cry any minute, and here they were, supposed to be our leaders. 


The day we were arrested one of the Negro trusties sneaked us a
newspaper. We discovered that over 400 high school students had
also been arrested. We got out of jail on Sunday to discover that
everyone was talking about the high school students. All 400 who
were arrested had been taken to the fairgrounds and placed in a
large open compound without beds or anything. Mothers were begging
to have their children released, but the NAACP didn’t have
enough money to bail them all out 


The same day we went to jail for the pray-in, the students at Lanier
High School had started singing freedom songs on their lunch hour.
They got so carried away they ignored the bell when the break was
over and just kept on singing. The principal of the high school
did not know what to do, so he called the police and told them that
the students were about to start a riot. When the cops came, they
brought the dogs. The students refused to go back to their classrooms
when asked, so the cops turned the dogs loose on them. The students
fought them off for a while. In fact, I was told that mothers who
lived near the school had joined the students in fighting off the
dogs. They had begun to throw bricks, rocks, and bottles. The next
day the papers stated that ten or more cops suffered cuts or minor
wounds. The papers didn’t say it, but a lot of students were
hurt, too, from dog bites and lumps on the head from billy clubs.
Finally, 150 cops were rushed to the scene and several students
and adults were arrested. 


The next day 400 of the high school students gathered in a church
on Parish Street, ready to go to jail. Willie Ludden, the NAACP
youth leader, and some of the SNCC and CORE workers met with them,
gave a brief workshop on nonviolent protective measures, and led
them into the streets. After marching about two blocks they were
met by helmeted police officers and ordered to disperse. When they
refused, they were arrested and herded into paddy wagons, canvas-covered
trucks, and garbage trucks. Those moving too slowly were jabbed
with rifle butts. From the way everyone was describing the scene
it sounded like Nazi Germany instead of Jackson, USA. 


On Monday I joined a group of high school and college students who
were trying to get arrested. Our intention was to be put in the
fairgrounds with the high school students already there. The cops
picked us up, but they didn’t want to put us so-called professional
agitators in with the high school students. We were weeded out and
taken back to the city jail. 


Within four or five days Jackson became the hotbed of demonstrations
in the South. It seemed as though most of the Negro college and
high school students there were making preparations to participate.
At this point, Mayor Allen Thompson finally made a move. He announced
that Jackson had made plans to house over 12,500 demonstrators at
the local jails and at the fairgrounds. And if this was not enough,
he said, Parchman, the state penitentiary, 160 miles away, would
be used. 


An injunction prohibiting demonstrations was issued by a local judge,
naming NAACP, CORE, Tougaloo College, and various leaders. According
to this injunction, the intent of the named organizations and individuals
was to paralyze the economic nerve center of the city of Jackson.
It used as proof the leaflets that had been distributed by the NAACP
urging Negroes not to shop on Capitol Street. The next day the injunction
was answered with another mass march.








The cops started arresting every Negro on the scene of a demonstration
whether or not he/she was participating. People were being carted
off to jail every day of the week. On Saturday Roy Wilkins, the
National Director of NAACP, and Medgar Evers were arrested as they
picketed in front of Woolworth’s. Theldon Henderson, a Negro
lawyer who worked for the Justice Department and had been sent down
from Washington to investigate a complaint by the NAACP about the
fairgrounds, was also arrested. It was said that when he showed
his credentials, the arresting officer started trembling. They let
him go immediately. 


Mass rallies had come to be an every night event and at each one
the NAACP had begun to build up Medgar Evers. Somehow I had the
feeling that they wanted him to become for Mississippi what Martin
Luther King had been in Alabama. They were well on the way to achieving
that, too. 


After the rally on Tuesday, June 11, I had to stay in Jackson. I
had missed the ride back to campus. The CORE field secretary for
Mississippi and his wife put me up for the night. We were watching
TV around 12:30 when a special news bulletin interrupted the program.
It said, “Jackson NAACP leader Medgar Evers has just been shot.”
We didn’t believe what we were hearing. We just sat there staring
at the TV screen. The next bulletin announced that he had died in
the hospital soon after the shooting. We didn’t know what to
say or do. All night we tried to figure out what had happened, who
did it, who was next, and it still didn’t seem real. 



A

fter Medgar’s death there was a period
of confusion. Each Negro leader and organization in Jackson received
threats. They were all told they were “next on the list.”
Things began to fall apart. The ministers, in particular, didn’t
want to be “next”; a number of them took that long-promised
vacation to Africa or elsewhere. Meanwhile, SNCC and CORE became
more militant and began to press for more demonstrations. A lot
of the young Negroes wanted to let the whites of Jackson know that
even by killing off Medgar they hadn’t touched the real core
of the movement. For the NAACP and the older, more conservative
groups, however, voter registration had become number one on the
agenda. After the NAACP exerted its influence at a number of meetings,
the militants lost. 


The Jackson

Daily News

seized the opportunity to cause more
fragmentation. They ran a headline that there is a split in the
organizations and, shortly afterward, certain organizations completely
severed their relations with each other. The whites had succeeded
again. They had reached us through the papers by letting us know
we were not together. Too bad, I thought. One day we’ll learn. 


Within a week everything had changed. Even the rallies were not
the same. The few ministers and leaders who did come were so scared—they
thought assassins were going to follow them home. Soon there were
rallies only twice a week instead of every night. 


The Sunday following Medgar’s funeral, Reverend Ed King organized
an integrated church-visiting team of six of us from the college.
Another team was organized by a group in Jackson. Five or six churches
were hit that day, including Governor Ross Barnett’s. At each
one they had prepared for our visit with armed policemen, paddy
wagons, and dogs—which would be used in case we refused to
leave after “ushers” had read us the prepared resolutions.
There were about eight of these ushers at each church and they were
never exactly the usherly type. They were more on the order of Al
Capone. I think this must have been the first time any of these
men had worn a flower in his lapel. When we were asked to leave,
we did. 


A group of us decided that we would go to church again the next
Sunday. We went first to a Church of Christ where we were greeted
by the regular ushers. After reading us the same resolution we had
heard last week, they offered to give us cab fare to the Negro extension
of the church. Just as we were walking away, a woman stopped us.
“We’ll sit with you,” she said. 


We walked back to the ushers with her and her family. “Please
let them in, Mr. Calloway. We’ll sit with them,” the woman
said. 


“Mrs. Dixon, the church has decided what is to be done. A resolution
has been passed and we are to abide by it.” 


“Who are we to decide such a thing? This is a house of God
and God is to make all of the decisions. He is the judge of us all,”
the woman said. 


The ushers got angrier then and threatened to call the police if
we didn’t leave. We decided to go. 


“We appreciate very much what you’ve done,” I said
to the woman. 


Two blocks from the church, we were picked up by Jeanette King.
She drove us to an Episcopal church. When we walked inside, we were
greeted by two ushers. 


“May we help you?” one said. 


“Yes,” I said. “We would like to worship with you
.” 


“Will you sign the guest list, please, and we will show you
to your seats,” said the other. 


I stood there for a good five minutes before I was able to compose
myself. I had never prayed with white people in a white church before.
We signed the guest list and were escorted to two seats. The church
service was completed without one incident. It was as normal as
any church service. 


When the services were over the minister invited us to visit again.
He said it as if he meant it and I began to have a little hope.