Recently I watched a film, An Ordinary Hero. It was a good film and documented some of the unrest and violence in the south during the fight for Civil Rights. I learned about a woman, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a Freedom Rider, and I greatly admire her. Her story needs to be retold and understood especially in these time of such hate, violence and divisiveness. I wanted to share a little of her with you today. I remember these times and had strong feelings of support for the Freedom Riders, but now, as an adult, I can view this time through a different lens and it speaks to me, loudly, again. We must not forget.
Joan was born in 1941, in Washington D.C. and raised in Virginia. Her great grandparents had been slave owners in Georgia. Her mother was the first in the family to marry a Yankee, and both of her parents had good government jobs. The family were regular attendants at Church and from an early age, Joan felt the split between what she was being taught in scripture in Church and at Sunday School, and what she was seeing and feeling in her family and community in general. She memorized verses that spoke to her such as: "In as much as you have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for such is the Kingdom of God."The morality she was taught at church was in direct contrast to the segregation around her, and the hatred her parents espoused. Her parents eventually disowned her for her radical thoughts and behaviors.
By the age of 10, Joan began to recognize the economic divide between the races. She knew it was wrong and vowed to herself that if she could do anything to help be a part of the Civil Rights Movement and change the world, she would.
Her tendencies toward activism caused a deep divide between Joan and her family, especially her mother. Joan had planned on going to small church college away from home, perhaps in Ohio or Kentucky. Her mother absolutely forbade it fearing that the campus and classes would be integrated. Her mother insisted that she apply to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, still safely segregated and tucked away in the south. She was accepted.
During the first weeks of school all of the girls were racing about wanting to pledge into sororities. Joan and her roommate had no interest in these activities and instead they attended a meeting of the International Club which they enjoyed. This behavior was so unusual for Duke freshman girls that the university sent a counselor to speak with the girls to ascertain what was wrong and make sure they were happy on campus.
In 1960, Joan participated in her first sit in. She was a tried and true southern, white girl and this was totally unthinkable. She was not understood and actually branded as mental ill, by friends and family, who had a need to distance themselves from her adverse behaviors, and taken for testing by a psychiatrist after her first arrest. At the time of her arrest she knew she would be searched so she wore a skirt with a deep, ruffled hem where she stored a paper that was folded neatly and she was able to chronicle her daily experiences in jail. This diary still exists. She wrote about what they were give to eat, and how they sang all night long. She also talked about the segregation in the jail cells and stated, "I think all the girls in here are gems but I feel more in common with the Negro girls & wish I was locked in with them instead of these atheist Yankees.”
She received a lot of faculty support during her time as an activist and a Duke student, but not from the administration. The Dean of Women was particularly aggressive in her disapproval and knowing this was not a good fit for her, Joan dropped out in the fall of 1961.
In the falloff 1961, The Freedom Riders, a group of mixed race activists, challenged the legally segregated buses and bus stations of the south by refusing to travel separately. Thirteen riders left on two Greyhound busses leaving Washington D.C. and heading to New Orleans. They had to go through Anniston, Alabama, which was a hot bed of violence, hatred and a very dangerous town. It was Mother’s Day when they made a stop in Anniston and the two buses and were set on fire. Churchgoers, along with their children, were reported to have watched as the riders attempted to escape the flames of the bus, only to be beaten by the townspeople until the police stopped the chaos. After this event, many thought they saw the end of the Freedom Riders, but they were actually more determined to end the hate, inequality and segregation. Stokley Carmichael, Hank Thomas and many others joined the movement and they became stronger and continued their freedom rides.
At one point a new group of Freedom Riders were arrested for refusing to leave a bus waiting area in Jackson, Mississippi, Mulholland and others were put inside a paddy wagon and taken to the most dreaded prison in Mississippi, Parchman Penitentiary in the Delta, just a stone’s throw from where Emmett Till had been brutally murdered in 1955. Joan was only 19 at the time, but refused to post bail. She also began to seriously fear for her life, as did her companions.
Arriving at Parchman, the women were issued coarse denim black-and-white striped skirts and t-shirts. Prior to being locked in cells, they were stripped and each given a vaginal exam. The matron cleansed her gloved hand, prior to each exam, in a bucket of liquid that Mulholland said smelled like Lysol. In prison, Mulholland was segregated from her fellow activists and described the experience as isolating, with everyone unaware of what was going on.
They were housed on death row, for two months."We were in a segregated cell with 17 women and 3 square feet of floor space for each of us," she recalled in an interview given 2014. Many of the freedom riders remained behind bars about a month, but Mulholland had no plans and no place to go until school opened in the fall. She served her two-month sentence and additional time to work off the $200 fine she owed. Each day in prison took three dollars off the fine.
When she was released, she became aware that Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes were the first African-American students to enroll at the University of Georgia. Joan though if whites were going to riot when black students were going to white shcools, what were they going to do if a white student, a southern belle at that, enfold in a black school! She became the first white student to enroll in Tougaloo College, in Jackson Mississippi. It was here she met Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther Kind, Jr., Reverend Ed. King and Anne Moody. After two years she was the first white student accepted into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. a sorority she could get excited about. Later, Joan also became a secretary for SNCC.
Joan relates that, during her attendance at Tougaloo College, crosses were occasionally burned on campus. She also received many letters either scolding or threatening her. One she remembers fondly, from California, praising her. Several of the local authorities were worried that something might happen between her—a white woman—and one of the black men. There were various attempts to shut down Tougaloo but the school remained open because its charter predated the Jim Crow Laws.
In an attempt to distract her, and truth be told, a bribe, hoping she would choose another college next year, Joan’s parents offered her a trip to Europe. She went and enjoyed the trip but in the fall she went straight back to Tougaloo College.
In 1963, the Woolworth’s lunch counter, sit in occurred in Jackson, Mississippi. I remember it so well, it was May 28th, a lovely spring day. Joan and 13 other activists from Tougaloo, including Anne Moody, professor Dr. John Salter, and white Tougaloo chaplain Reverend Ed King. The activists were beaten, smeared with condiments, and berated. The crowd yelled at the students, screaming the phrase "communist" at them constantly. One man pointed out of the crowd to Mulholland, calling her a "white nigger” and the police refused to do anything and blood and epitaphs flowed.
The crowd grew more violent. One activist received a cigarette burn on the back of his neck, he was hit in the jaw with brass knuckles, and a pepper water mix was thrown into his eyes. They all began to fear for their lives, once again, just before things started to draw to a close. The sit-in ended after a few hours, when the president of Tougaloo College got a hold of the National Office of Woolworth, who advised the store manager to shut the store down.
This event ended up being one of the most violent sit-ins. Mulholland recalled being told by reporters that it was one of the most frightening stories they had ever covered on the Civil Rights Movement. Bill Minor, then the Mississippi correspondent covering civil rights events for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and who was there that day, says the Jackson Woolworth's sit-in was "the signature event of the protest movement in Jackson. The first one there was with real violence.
That same year Joan participated in the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King and the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 which contributed to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act that year. Her willingness to stand up for justice has been an inspiration, ''Anyone can make a difference. It doesn't matter how old or young you are. Find a problem, get some friends together, and go fix it. Remember, you don't have to change the world . . . just change your world.’’
Following her years as an activist, Joan raised a family, taught school and lived a quiet life. Her story must never be forgotten. Ms. Mulholland faced threats and was hunted down by the KKK during Freedom Summer. Ms. Mulholland is now a retired teacher after teaching English as a second language for 40 years. Ms. Mulholland has started a foundation known as the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland foundation . The foundation’s goal is to educate the youth about the civil rights movement and to help teach youth how to become activists in their own communities.
Her life is beautifully chronicled in the film “An Ordinary Hero, “ highly recommended. Also, the film Freedom Fighters is another film that portrays the time well.