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'The Help' I knew cared more about voting rights than getting back at white ladies

What concerned 'the help' I met in Mississippi in the 1960s was not embarrassing the white women they worked for (as in Kathryn Stockett's novel-turned-movie 'The Help'). They wanted real political power, beginning with voting rights.

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Although I was there two years after the famous Freedom Summer of 1964, Indianola, like the rest of Mississippi, was still a dangerous place. Racial tension was present everywhere, and most blacks were not yet on the voter rolls, as I quickly realized from going house to house, trying to put together a record of who was and was not registered. Earlier in the year, James Meredith, who in 1962 with the aid of federal marshals had entered Ole Miss and broken its color barrier, had been shot near Hernando, Miss., as he staged a one-man “March Against Fear.”

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The woman in whose home I stayed that summer had all the risk she wanted to take on by sheltering me. In her living room there was a lithograph of Jesus on the cross and color photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Kennedy, but she made sure she kept her feelings about right and wrong to herself when she wasn’t around close friends. Her husband was dead, and she was supporting her daughter and grandson on her maid’s salary. Every penny counted.

She had a white employer who drove her back home at the end of the day and let her take leftovers from lunch with her, but the rules governing her job were not of her making. Even on the hottest days she went to work wearing a freshly-starched, white uniform and white nylon stockings. If her employer had decided she should be fired for housing a civil rights worker, the whole system by which she kept a roof over her head and that of her daughter and grandson would have quickly unraveled. There was no backup plan.

I made sure to stay out of sight when she was driven home, and I did the same when the white insurance agent, whom she paid weekly in cash, came by. As the butter beans and okra that crowded out the morning glories in her front yard garden showed, she was focused on the practical. It only made sense that her heroism (opening her home to a civil rights worker, going to meetings with Fannie Lou Hamer) took the same form.

Looking back, I realize why such ordinary-appearing heroism doesn’t rate a book or a movie. It lacks drama by virtue of the emphasis it puts on steady grit. I am certain, however, that the kind of day-to-day heroism I saw among the help in Mississippi explains a lot about why the civil rights movement succeeded. It certainly explains more than any of the feel-good stories that since “To Kill a Mocking Bird” have focused on relationships between blacks and whites in the Deep South.

I always knew that if I returned North by the end of summer, the fear I experienced every morning on waking up in Mississippi would go away. The help never had that luxury and never expected it.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently at work on a memoir, “The Road to Mississippi.”

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