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.
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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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.