Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a legendary civil rights activist, grew up in the South during the African-American civil rights movement. Her position in society as a young, white, southern woman in a well-off family offered security and opportunity. Despite this fact, Mulholland was tormented by the injustice she saw going on around her and felt a responsibility to help make things right. “I saw something was wrong and decided to do something about it,” she said.
To university students bent on making a difference in the world, Mulholland’s story of courage and sacrifice is very relevant. Now 74 years old, Mulholland will join us on campus to speak about her experiences at an event cosponsored by Women’s Studies and The Office of Civic Engagement.
Much of Mulholland’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement began when she moved from her family home in Arlington, Virginia, to Durham, North Carolina to attend Duke University. It was during this time that she participated in her first of many sit-ins and joined the Freedom Riders. She later dropped out of Duke University when the Dean of Women pressured her to stop her activism. By 19-years-old Mulholland had participated in over three dozen sit-ins and protests. Her activism was not understood and some deemed her mentally ill. Her own family disowned her.
After spending two months in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary prison with other Freedom Riders, Mulholland watched Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton E. Holmes become the first African American students to enroll at the University of Georgia, Mulholland wondered, “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?” Shortly thereafter she became the first white student to enroll in Tougaloo College.
Through her acts, Mulholland became a central member of the movement. She was involved in one of the most famous and violent sit-ins of the movement at the Jackson Woolworth lunch counter. She also helped plan and organize the March on Washington. Because of her activism she was attacked, shot at, cursed at, and even hunted by the Klan. When Mulholland is asked about what inspired or motivated her to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement, she often refers to the hypocrisy she was surrounded by as she grew up. She said,
We had to memorize Bible verses about how to treat each other, like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ … When I got to high school, we had to memorize the Declaration of Independence, which says ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ The problem was that we didn’t practice what we were being taught.
Racism, in all its forms, is something we continue to deal with today. According to a Pew Research poll, about six-in-ten Americans say the country needs to continue making changes to assure that blacks have equal rights with whites.
Mulholland’s life has been written about in several books and her experiences were highlighted in an award-winning documentary entitled “An Ordinary Hero”. She was recently recognized, along with other female Freedom Riders, by President Barack Obama and has received numerous awards and recognition for her work in the Civil Rights Movement.