Essie Mae Moody, who became an activist and author of one of the most powerful autobiographies written during the civil rights movement, was born on 15 September 1940 in Wilkerson County, Mississippi. Moody survived poverty, racism, and patriarchy—problems that only accelerated her eagerness for the freedom and civil rights of African Americans. Her parents were sharecroppers on a white-owned plantation, and at age nine she went to work for white women to help support her siblings. She began calling herself Anne as a teenager, attended Natchez Junior College for a time, and then earned a bachelor’s degree from Tougaloo College in 1964. At Tougaloo she became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an organizer and fundraiser for the Congress of Racial Equality. She participated in a sit-in at Woolworth’s cafeteria in Jackson, where she and her coworkers were abused by white students for almost three hours until the Tougaloo president and others arrived. Other activities led her to jail.
After graduation, she spent a year coordinating a civil rights project at Cornell University. In 1967 she married Austin Straus. The couple had a son, Sascha, before divorcing.
By 1967 Moody set aside activism in favor of writing, publishing her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi the following year. She described how she and her white playmates were forced to sit separately at a movie theater, and later how one of her white employers told her to come into the house through the back door. The 1955 murder of fourteen-year old Emmett Till shocked her: “I hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders” she had learned about or “vaguely remembered from childhood. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders.” She wrote about her admiration of the resilience and resolve of C. O. Chinn and other activists in Canton but also described the exhaustion and frustrations of day-to-day activism. Moody increasingly wondered about the direction the civil rights movement was taking. She grew tired after the deaths of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham church bombing victims, and Pres. John F. Kennedy. She felt isolated on a bus heading toward Washington, D.C., listening to her coworkers sing “We Shall Overcome.” The autobiography ends with her skepticism about the movement. Moody retired from activism because she felt that nothing seemed to change.
She won a German Academic Exchange Service grant in 1972 and spent a year in Berlin as an artist. She received the silver medal from Mademoiselle magazine for her story “New Hopes for the Seventies” and published an anthology, Mr. Death: Four Stories, in 1975. Over the next two decades, she granted no interviews and held a series of nonwriting jobs, including a position as an antipoverty counselor in New York City. She returned to Mississippi in the early 1990s and died there on 5 February 2015 after developing dementia. Her autobiography remains one of the most frequently taught books on the civil rights movement, in part because it dramatizes the events from the perspective of a particularly sensitive young person engaged in the act of interpreting those events.
Recent efforts to honor her legacy in her hometown of Centreville have included Anne Moody Day, a street sign named for the activist, and a new Anne Moody History Project.
- William L. Andrews, Southern Review (Winter 1988)
- Lynn Z. Bloom, in Home Ground: Southern Autobiography, ed. J. Bill Berry (1991)
- Margalit Fox, New York Times (17 February 2015)
- Minrose Gwin, Southern Spaces (11 March 2008)
- Emmanuel S. Nelson, African American Biographers (2002)