Coming of Age in Mississippi – Civil Rights Movement

In the United States, the protest has always been an important tool of democracy, a way for the minority to let itself be heard.

Take the Civil Rights movement. Today's race relations are better than they were fifty years ago because a relatively small group of people convinced enough of the country that racism was a disease that would kill everything that made America special.

These people were following in the footsteps of an earlier generation. Long before Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, people like Ida B. Wells, W. E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington took on racism to both heckles and cheers. Their message was simple: if the U. S. Constitution failed for one race, it would fail for everyone.

It was scary for Ann Moody, an author and one of the leaders of the modern Civil Rights movement. Moody knew that only loud, public protests could change laws and sentiments. Others had driven that point home long before she was born. And Today, as in Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi, about life in the rural South during the 1940s and 1950s, the creed is the same: staying quiet means suffering the consequences.

Some had preferred a more timid approach. In his speech at the Atlanta Exposition of 1895, Washington, who created the Tuskegee Institute, a trade school, urged a largely white audience to embrace black people and take advantage of their menial skills.

"While doing this," he told the audience, "you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen."

But others, like Wells, a journalist during the Reconstruction, were resentful toward white people and angry at the suffering of the "young manhood of the dark race."

"They have cheated him out of his ballot, deprived him of civil rights or redress in the Civil Courts thereof, robbed him of the fruits of his labor, and are still murdering, burning and lynching him," Wells writes in a pamphlet in 1892.

To the lynching, she had this solution: "A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give."

It was a violent sentiment, but Moody, more than half a century later, would have approved. She, too, faced a powerful establishment, and as it grew more violent, Moody grew more hateful of white people. She hated them because they hated black people.

"But I also hated Negroes," she writes. "I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites."

Moody yearned for equality. But equality, according to Washington, was a privilege to be earned.

"The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly," Washington said in his address, "and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle, rather than of artificial forcing."

But there is nothing artificial about fighting racism. Oddly, Washington called for "constant struggle" while denouncing the "agitation of questions of social equality." He might have been able to do two opposite things at once, but, as today's activists are aware, without agitation there is no struggle. People like Du Bois knew it a hundred years ago.

"Separation in railway and street cars, based simply on race and color, is un-American, undemocratic, and silly," Du Bois wrote in 1903, several years after Washington's address. "We protest against all such discrimination."

And his belief in the protest, the barest and most direct form of democracy, lives on today. It is an American way of life, a constant reminder that power in the United States rests with the people. The Constitution says so, and it's been that way one generation after another.

Sometimes the generations blur, as they did for Moody when she observes a limping, old man - old enough to have heard Washington tell white people the equivalent of: "Don't be scared, let us be your servants - lead demonstrators up to a throng of policemen. Several of them had just finished beating a black man to unconsciousness.

"They wore helmets and were armed with rifles, pistols and billy sticks," Moody writes. "As the old man got within a few yards of the wall of cops, he picked up his cane and seemed to walk straight up to them without a limp at all.

"I think every Negro who saw this happen was toughened by the way that old man faced those cops."

And the legacy lives on.

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