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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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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.


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