Joan Trumpauer Mulholland kept her activism up Saturday with a presentation at the Lawrence Public Library on her time in the heyday of the civil rights movement, and the lessons it offers for today.
Arrested for her participation in the 1961 Freedom Rides through the South, and a participant in the famed 1963 sit-in at the Jackson, Miss., Woolworth’s lunch counter, Mulholland remains vocal in activist movements today — including groups that arose in response to the policy positions of President Donald Trump.
“I can’t do the same thing I used to do,” she said before her presentation. “But there has to be people behind those out in front. The night before the Women’s March on Washington, I was in a church basement painting signs. What I do now is a lot of speaking. That’s a form of action.”
Mulholland’s story, which she told at the library in a conversation with State Rep. Barbara Ballard, centered on fighting against racial injustice during the early 1960s. The story was documented in a film, “An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland,” by her son Loki Mulholland.
“There were thousands and thousands of students doing the same thing I did,” she said. “My name got out there because my son tricked me into doing a film.”
Perhaps so, but by her own account, Mulholland helped organize a continuation of the 1961 Freedom Ride after riders of the first buses calling attention to racial segregation on interstate buses were arrested. The arrests came after buses were firebombed in Anniston, Ala., by a mob of Klansmen, and riders were beaten there and at later stops.
To keep the Freedom Rides active, Mulholland was asked to recruit additional riders from Washington, D.C. She then flew with her recruits to New Orleans to board a train that included such activists as Stokely Carmichael, who would later become the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council. The ride ended in Jackson, Miss., when the riders were arrested for refusing to leave a segregated area at a train station.
Mulholland said she and the others were convicted at a perfunctory trial and placed first in a county jail before being taken to a maximum security state prison.
Or, as she summed up the experience: “I got a free plane ride to New Orleans, and then the state of Mississippi gave me free room and board for the summer.”
In the jail, the white women riders were confined in cramped spaces of less than 3 square feet per person. At the prison, her cell was still small, but conditions and food were better, she said. Although she was not physically abused, there were attempts at intimidation.
“I was a Southerner, so that didn’t bother me,” she said. “I knew what they were trying to do.”
Mulholland grew up in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.
“People say that’s not the South,” she said. “It’s the home for Robert E. Lee. I had to stand up at school and sing ‘Dixie’ in the morning.”
She became active in the civil rights movement when, as a freshman at Duke University — a college choice her mother dictated — students from the all-black North Carolina College visited to recruit people to participate in sit-ins protesting racial discrimination.
Mulholland accepted the invitation.
After her summer of incarceration, Mulholland became the first white student admitted to Tougaloo College, an all-black school of about 500 students. Because of its location in the Mississippi Delta, the school became a home for many prominent activists in the civil rights movement, she said.
Her direct nonviolent action continued, and she went in May 1963 to Jackson for a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter, where she became the focus of an iconic photo of the civil rights movement. The picture shows a white man pouring sugar in her hair as she sits at the counter.
She wasn’t supposed to be at the counter, Mulholland said, but part of another demonstration outside. She walked through a crowd of white people to take a place at the counter after two of the African-American people originally there were beaten.
The photo was taken by the local newspaper’s junior photographer, who precariously balanced on the counter and food station to get the shot, Mulholland said. She added that the photographer ended up praising the students later, swayed by the courage of the nonviolent action.
Mulholland went on to help organize the 1963 March on Washington, best known for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and participated in the last day of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. King's speech at the Selma march was better, she said, because of its call for action.
Ballard also marched the route that day. Realizing many of her fellow marchers were white, she said, she learned from the experience the power of inclusiveness.
“I realized they were going because they were fighting for what we believed in,” she said. “We could make more of a difference if we have more people.”
That march was in support of voting rights, and Mulholland said the big milestone in that fight was President Lyndon Johnson’s national address supporting the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“Johnson leaned into the camera and used the words of the civil rights movement — ‘We shall overcome” — and then repeated them,” she said. “He knew exactly what he was doing. It was the death knell of Southern Democratic Party.”
Recent attempts to roll back voting rights legislation are discouraging, Mulholland said, but she’s optimistic the current retrenchment won’t last. The Woolworth’s lunch counter of 54 years ago was a blueprint of how to make that happen, she said.
“Demonstrators need to go to the streets, lawyers need to go to courts and the press needs to take the story to the world,” she said.
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