Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a series of interviews I’m conducting with people across the country. This is an effort to get to know the stories of the people whose status updates I see on Facebook. It is the discovery of how people came to form their political beliefs, what worries they might have and what gives them hope. These are #PeopleoftheResistance. If you have a story to share, shoot me a note
Salisbury, N.C. – Moving off up north wasn’t easy for Jimmie Moomaw. She’d spent near about her entire adult life – forty-one years of it in Atlanta. She and her husband Ned, a professor at Agnes Scott College, moved to the big city. Leaving behind that life and all that familiarity wasn’t easy.
“I was so settled in Atlanta,” Jimmie says. “When you are 77 and looking at change, you are only able to see the side of what you are giving up. You’re not able to see what you might be getting.”
Jimmie (the name her daddy bestowed upon his only child) speaks with the crisp diction of a stern elocution instructor, but as a born storyteller, she is prone to venturing off into the high rushes. One story leads to another, and, hold your finger there, we’ll get back to that in a minute. She simply can’t help herself. The way Jimmie sees it, there is a story behind every story and everything is a story. A person can’t listen half-heartedly to Jimmie, not if they want to keep up with her sharp wit and glean all they can from her impressive intellect.
North Carolina may not seem like all that big of a move for folks in Atlanta, but for Jimmie it was challenge, one that drove her to her knees.
“I’m not a fundamentalist,” she’s quick to say. “I don’t want you to think you’ve hooked yourself to a practicing Baptist or anything like that. But that move was the first time in my life where I really had to relinquish my will to God’s. I asked him to guide me, to lead me where I needed to be.”
She prayed that prayer three years ago. Jimmie will celebrate her 80th birthday this month and this last adventure has been one of the best in her lifetime.
“It was the biggest ah-ha moment of my life,” Jimmie says. “As soon as I got to Salisbury I was pleased and happy and realized that I had not been happy in Atlanta. I had simply not been unhappy there and there’s a vast difference between not being unhappy and being happy.”
Health concerns prompted the move north. She’s near a daughter and grandchildren now. Family. Community. She’s has a lovely spot in the sun and a garden to grow cukes in. Back in Atlanta, all she had left really was (were?) the remnants of a long and distinguished teaching career at Georgia State University and good doctors.
Jimmie was raised up in Brookhaven, Mississippi, the only child of alcoholic parents. You can read all about her childhood in her book Southern Fried Child. She wrote the book in the personal narrative common to Southerners, primarily as a gift to her children and grandchildren, but she was delighted by the response from readers beyond the family. “A lot of people identified with me. They tell me, ‘Your daddy could have been my daddy.’”
The world, Jimmie adds, is in perpetual change, so it’s important that we document these narratives. To testify as it were.
Jimmie’s father, a Yankee transplant from Danville, Il., was raised up at Dixie Gardens, a 2800 plantation in Mississippi. The family was quite wealthy until the Great Depression hit, then they lost everything. Jimmie’s daddy dropped out of the 8th-grade, went to work pumping gas, working his way slowly up until he owned his own grocery store and service station. Jimmie’s momma had grown up on a 40-acre farm contiguous to Dixie Gardens. Her parents’ romance was one of convenience and commonality.
But that mixed heritage confused Jimmie. During her early years, she considered herself unlike the other kids in the neighborhood. Jimmie didn’t understand that Yankee was a geographical-designation, not the result of some wonky DNA breeding. “I thought I was half-Yankee and half-white child,” she says, laughing.
Growing up in the segregated South, Jimmie’s politics and worldview were honed early. “When our neighbor ran for tax assessor, he hired me to stand outside the high school and hand out his cards – Vote for Stinky.”
Jimmie was eight years old and already learning the two-party system. “Everybody was a Democrat in those days,” Jimmie recalled. “Democrats were the party of the poor. The party of the working class.”
Her parents were Democrats. So was Stinky. Still, people in those days didn’t divulge much about their own personal votes. “Mama and Daddy didn’t even tell each other how they were voting,” Jimmie says. “That was just something they were really secretive about.”
Everybody in Brookhaven felt that same way, far as Jimmie can recall. “It was partly due to being in a small town. Some of it was an element of some sort of faux Southern hospitality and polite veneer. It wasn’t that they didn’t want (to)say who they were voting for as much as it was they didn’t want to not be for somebody else.”
Nobody wanted anybody to feel left out. Well, unless you happen to be a black man or woman. Then you couldn’t vote. Jimmie says that when President Truman integrated the Armed Forces in 1948, that’s when the disparity in racism became front and center for her. She was only 11 years old but keenly aware that the world in which she lived was a stark one – whites on one side and blacks on the other.
Jimmie was 25 and teaching at Mississippi State University in 1962 when James Meredith, a black man, was escorted under protection of federal guards into the formerly all-white population of Ole Miss. It was a defining moment for the nation, and a costly one. But for Jimmie, it was simply the right thing to do. Treating others “less than” had long been a wrong in her mind.
“My first taste of awareness wasn’t about race,” she says. “It was about religion.” An aunt had taken umbrage over Jimmie attending a private Catholic school. “They are going to make her pray to statues!” the aunt warned Jimmie’s mother. “They will turn her into a Catholic!” Baptists like Jimmie’s aunt were strident in their attitudes toward people of other faiths. Too many people of faith still are. Jimmie wonders sometimes how she made it out of Mississippi with a worldview unmarred by bigotry.
An education helps, of course. Seeking out community among people who read and dialogue and consider that not everyone sees the world in the same hues. “I had cousins and relatives who were racist. I couldn’t rid myself of that. I bit my tongue a lot around them. And I chose to lead an insular life, away from all that. The people I bowled with, or went to parties with didn’t talk that way, and didn’t think that way.”
And there was Ella Mae, the woman who helped care for her when she was growing up. “My love for Ella Mae Winston was a love as deep and true as my love for anybody.” It was Ella Mae, after all, who provided young Jimmie with safe harbor from her alcoholic parents. It was Ella Mae who taught Jimmie that being white wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “I’ll tell you something, hon,” Ella Mae confided to the young Jimmie. “If you had ever been a nigger from Friday night to Sunday morning, you would never want to be white again.”
It is because of her love for Ella Mae that Jimmie Moomaw does not indulge bigotry in any form. She cannot abide Donald Trump nor his tolerance for racist supporters. And unlike those she grew up around in small-town Mississippi, Jimmie doesn’t shy away from speaking her mind.
“I was a debate coach for 14 years. I welcome disagreement and discussion between those who know how to do it,” Jimmie says, “But those making totally unsubstantiated assertions? They need to unfriend me. Go away.”
Jimmie admits that she enjoys “whooping up on Trump” or expressing her concerns over global warming.
“My politics and my religion come from the same place – the Bible. I consider it a great moral guide for constructing a value system – the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Golden Rule (an implied rule).”
Adhering to the teachings was easier to do before the Election of 2016. Used to be most people would go along to get along. Trump changed all that. Jimmie wasn’t caught off-guard by Trump’s meteoric rise to presidency but she was profoundly disappointed.
“I’m not at all surprised. The two courses I specialized in and taught graduate courses in were Argumentation and Persuasion. The Power of Logic vs. the Power of Passion,” Jimmie says.
Trump appeals to people’s passions, and pretty much everybody responds to passion, Jimmie explains. President Obama appealed to voters’ passions, too, he just did it in a positive fashion – Yes. We. Can. – whereas, Trump aims lower.
“Liberals are motivated by hope,” Jimmie says. “Conservatives are motivated by fear.”
This insight into people and the power of their words has long been a matter of study for Jimmie. That desire for understanding, for making sense of one’s world doesn’t diminish with age. Neither does the desire to make a difference.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t an activist,” Jimmie says. “I’m hardwired to be outspoken.” It was a quality Ned admired in his wife. On their very first date they wrote a petition to establish a faculty senate at the college where they taught.
Trump has managed to blow away any naive assumptions about humanity that Jimmie might have entertained. “Who we are, what makes us good in character and in will, Trump blew all that out of the water,” she says. “The truest thing Trump has ever done is show us how truly ugly and nasty and negative he is. But that so many voted for him being truthfully himself – lying, denying, bullying. That they saw that and still voted for him – their hypocrisy drives me insane.”
As Jimmie celebrates her 80th year, she’s anxious in ways she’s never experienced before.
“I really fear Trump as a danger on every level I can think of. I fear the danger he represents to the Democracy that I think has already made America great. I fear his lack of understanding about diplomacy. His ignorance of 7th grade civics scares me. His taking each area of our government province and picking the person least allied with its purpose and perspective to lead it. And I fear that what he is introducing to social conversation is a breaking of the social compact.”
As Trump ascends to the highest office in the land amidst worldwide turmoil, Jimmie’s concerns escalate.
“He’s tearing at the fabric of documents upon which we base our faith, rules and protocols. He’s shredding that. And he’s doing so with so much ugliness, hate, fear and revenge. He’s disrupting the world order.”
Though the possibility of nuclear warfare worries her, it’s the global climate change she’s most concerned about. “We are destroying the earth,” she says. “I fear that if we don’t pay attention, my grandchildren won’t have clear air or clean water.”
When it comes to the science of global warming and its effects upon the earth and the threats it poses, this is the thing that prompts Jimmie to conclude, “Trump represents catastrophic and apocalyptic dangers.”
The world won’t suffer if Trump makes a buttload of money by bilking the American public and exploiting the presidency, Jimmie says. But to deny the science behind global warming? Who does that?
“Never in my 80 years did I think Democracy would be this close to imploding, but it could happen.”
And, yet, despite all that nearly suffocating sense of doom, Jimmie pushes back. If she is anything, Jimmie is scrappy as hell. The retired debate coach still delights in the art of persuasion. And ageism never met an activist it could hog-tie. Besides everyone knows activists don’t die out, they simply transform.
Transformation is a life-long opportunity. Jimmie still rises each and every morning the same way she always has, with a big hearty “Yee-haw! I’m here!” and that old activist compulsion to make something good happen.
“I’ve always believed one person can change things,” Jimmie said. “In my classes, I used Jesus and Hitler as examples of one person’s power for change. I might have to dig deeper to find shreds of hope, but my hope rests in that I’m an old woman who is a resistor. I sit in my room with my fist in the air.”
And just like any true activist, Jimmie is an unrelenting optimist who beseeches God for help.
“I have to believe that there is already enough evidence that Trump will be impeached for treason. I believe someone will go after him. I hope that.”
.Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Burdy (Mercer University Press) and the forthcoming Christian Bend (MUP).