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Against the will of her family and the wishes of those in power, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland gives us a beautiful example of personal courage, commitment and drive to raise awareness about generations of social injustice. As a privileged white teenager, her future looked safe and sound, but it was her choices that landed her face to face with the KKK and violent mobs. She spent months in prison during the Freedom Rides, and stood shoulder to shoulder with the great moral heroes of the civil rights movement.
Raised in the American South, Joan was well aware of racial bigotry and segregation. She describes her mother as a “stereotypical Georgia redneck” who held strongly to the beliefs of white racial superiority. Her privileged father came from Iowa and held less demeaning views, but neither of her parents would be prepared for what would take place between 1960 and 1964.
Exposed to the conflicting values of segregation and the moral virtues written in the bible, by her youth pastor, her life changed when a group of African American youths were invited to speak about their justification and efforts to end segregation. Joan not only realized the truth about social injustice but that she as a white southern girl had inherent power to bring awareness to the inequalities.
“Segregation was unfair. It was wrong, morally, religiously. As a Southerner — a white Southerner — I felt that we should do what we could to make the South better and to rid ourselves of this evil.”
Though she wasn’t fully aware of all the danger she would face, Joan was given an opportunity to join the front lines of the movement as 19 year-old student attending Duke University. Durham North Carolina, home of Duke University, was about to become the second city in the nation to have sit-ins openly protesting the color barrier. Joan eagerly joined in.
When the Dean of Women at Duke pressured Joan to stop her activism she dropped out and devoted herself even more to the activism efforts, the sit-ins, pickets, demonstrations and the upcoming Freedom Rides.
In early June 1961, after the first Freedom Ride ended with a firebombed bus, Joan jumped on a flight down to Mississippi to join her friends. As she and others poured in from around the country to continue the Freedom Rides until they were arrested, fined $200 and sent to prison for two months.
“The idea was to challenge segregation in all interstate transportation, not just buses, and to get media attention.”
In disbelief that a young white woman would be risking her safety on the behalf of others, the prison’s superintendent sent a letter to Joan’s parents, chiding “What I cannot understand is why as a mother you permitted a minor white girl to gang up with a bunch of negro bucks and white hoodlums to ramble over this country with the express purpose of violating the laws of certain states and attempting to incite acts of violence.”
Joan served her two month imprisonment without bail and stayed in a month longer to reduce her fine by $3.00 for each additional day she remained. She was able to pay the remainder of her fine at the same time that Charlayne Hunter and Hamiton Holmes became the first African American students to enroll at the University of Georgia. Joan thought “Now if whites were going to riot when black students were going to white schools, what were they going to do if a white student went to a black school?” Inspired by Charlayne’s strength by intentionally enrolling in an all-white university, Joan decided to do likewise and enroll in all black schools.
Joan believed that “integration shouldn’t be a one-way street: Whites had to make the journey, too.” The historically black Tougaloo Southern Christian College in Mississippi reasoned that their school’s charter was older than the Jim Crow laws and daringly decided to accept her.
In 1963, with others from Tougaloo, Joan participated in the infamous sit-in at the Woolworth in Jackson. The peaceful event became violent as the crowd began hurling angry comments, dumping ice cream, condiments and sugar on the protesters (Joan is seen here in the center of this now famous photo, between Hunter Gray and Anne Moody). As the police force and FBI stood by to watch, someone grabbed her by the hair and dragged her through the menacing crowd towards the exit. Joan escaped and courageously made her way back to the counter while the others were beaten and bloodied.
Even as friends of hers continued to be beaten and killed, Joan continued to boldly participate in the civil rights efforts until the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland shows us that anyone can make a difference right where they live. Her unnecessary journey brought her face to face with the KKK, angry and violent mobs, three months in prison, and shoulder to shoulder with the great moral heroes of the civil rights movement. Without any guarantee of success, Joan boldly risked her education, her family relationships, her safety and her life, yet she never gave up or lost a hold of her values. For this she is a moral hero and we are deeply inspired.
Joan’s son Loki is making a film about her mother. Learn more about the film and Joan’s story here http://anordinaryhero.com
Another film featuring Joan and other heroines: Sister’s Shoulders
Joan kept a diary of her time in prison buy hiding paper in the hem of her skirt, her writings are featured in the book Breach of Peace
A Washington Post interview with Joan Mulholland
A great interview with Joan on YoutTube.