From the Mississippi Delta: A Memoir
by Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Ph.D.
Lawrence Hill Books
$15.95, 318 pp.
So much has been written about the civil rights movement and its leading cast of characters that it’s hard to imagine there being room for even one more enlightening word on the subject.
If Endesha Ida Mae Holland proves nothing else with her powerful memoir, it’s that the civil rights movement was not so much a mammoth singular event as it was a collection of hundreds of smaller events linked together to create something more significant. Broken down even further, those small events were comprised of the intertwining individual life stories of thousands of unknown civil rights soldiers whose lives were transformed by something larger than themselves — and whose lives were, at the same time, responsible for those transformative events. Holland’s life is one of those stories, and it manages to personalize the grassroots struggle for civil rights in Mississippi in a way that few other accounts have.
For one thing, Holland’s personal history is a brutally honest one that makes no attempt to hide or smooth over the raw life that she led while growing up. By her own account, she spent time as a prostitute and a thief. Ironically, it was her misguided career as a streetwalker that ultimately led her to join the civil rights movement. She began trailing a prospective client whom she hoped to lure into the sheets and away from his wallet. The man, obviously not a local — which meant he probably had more money to spend — kept walking until he arrived at the newly established local headquarters for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Holland, frustrated and angry that a man had dared to ignore her offerings, persisted in following him into the office. From that moment forward, her life was changed forever.
The man she had followed turned out to be Bob Moses, one of the most prominent grassroots organizers of the civil rights movement.
"They (SNCC) thought our older self-help organizations ... had grown too fat and lazy in their old age. SNCC provided younger blood and new energy to fight a war the Kennedy administration said was just beginning: to wipe out Jim Crow, starting at the ballot box and the courthouse. To bring together all the various black groups that had a finger in this pie into one powerful fist, the leaders of SNCC, the SCLC, the NAACP and CORE founded the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a kind of United Nations of black America. And white America, at least in the South, didn’t like that one bit.
"Twenty-seven-year-old Bob Moses was director of COFO’s voter registration drive, which brought him — and a whole lot of trouble — to Mississippi."
But despite Holland’s eventual heroism and commitment to the struggle, which initially scared and shamed her mother just as much, if not more, than did her earlier career as a hooker, "Cat" Holland’s life did not change overnight to that of a civil rights saint. Unlucky in love and marriage, Holland eventually gave birth to Cedric, her only son. Despite her love for him, she confesses an inability to be a good mother to the boy and essentially turned him over to his grandmother who she knew could do a better job.
Holland was a small-town Southern woman born into extreme poverty in a state where the level of racial hatred had achieved near-mythical status. Holland and her siblings were raised by their mother, a hard-working woman who knew only one way for a black person to survive in Mississippi: staying out of trouble and staying away from anyone who might even possibly be involved in some trouble. "Trouble" meant stirring up the white folks. Anything else was merely an inconvenience by comparison.
There are numerous personalized narratives written by — and about — the big names of the time, such as James Farmer’s autobiographical Lay Bare the Heart. However, finding an account of what the movement meant to the largely poor and uneducated masses of black folks, who had to continue to live with the terror of a racist Mississippi mentality long after the well-meaning freedom folks had come and gone, is difficult. The reason for that vacuum is relatively simple: Of those who survived that brutal period in American history, very few were educationally equipped to write their own stories in their own words — if they even felt like telling them to begin with. For those who did, it was usually someone else who had to transcribe the words for them, which often meant that the real story still didn’t get told.
This is one unfiltered, uncut, no-holds-barred memoir about black life in small-town Mississippi and the civil rights movement that has made its way to the printed page. And all you have to do is read it.Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]