The success of the film version of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel “The Help” has made me think again of the help I came to know as a civil rights worker in 1960s Mississippi.
In contrast to Ms. Stockett, who centers her story on Jackson, Miss., in 1963, I never met the help as they worked in white homes cleaning, cooking, and minding the children. That privileged world was closed off to me. I met the help in their own homes, on their own terms, in the black section of the small Delta town of Indianola, Miss., where in the summer of 1966 I did voter registration.
As in Stockett’s novel, the help I knew had plenty of grievances against their white employers. As maids and nannies, they worked long hours. They earned little more than minimum wage, and a retirement plan wasn’t even a consideration. But getting back at the white families who hired them by helping a white author write a tell-all book (as Stockett’s fictional black maids do) was the last thing any of the help I knew was going to try. Too much risk for too little payoff.
In Indianola, the jobs most help worked at were too hard to come by to chance getting fired for the satisfaction of shaming a white employer. Losing a job without having a recommendation to show a future employer was a recipe for permanent unemployment.
What concerned the help I met over the course of the summer was not embarrassing the white women they worked for – delicious as that thought might be – but real political power, beginning with voting rights. At least once a week, the family I was staying with, along with a number of other families from Indianola, drove to nearby Sunflower City for a meeting on voter registration that was presided over by Fannie Lou Hamer, who had gained national fame at the Democratic National Convention of 1964 as one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
At these weekly meetings, complaints about a mean white employer were never part of the discussion. Spending time on such a grievance would have been as pointless as grumbling about the hot Mississippi weather. Too much else was at stake to get sidetracked by what couldn’t be changed.
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.”
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.”