A Freedom Rider’s Testimony

Freedom Rider and sit-in activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland shared her experiences as part of the civil rights movement, encouraging students to right society’s wrongs.

IMG_6926PROVO, Utah (March 8, 2016)—You’ve seen the photo. It was in your history book or on the television as part of a documentary. Two young women and a man, one black and two white, sitting at a lunch counter, their heads and shoulders covered in ketchup, mustard and sugar. Behind them, a mob stands jeering, while one man reaches out to pour his drink on the middle woman’s head, her face turned away from the camera.

The sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter of Jackson, Mississippi, was an important milestone in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was part of a growing stack of evidence that neither African Americans nor the whites who considered them friends would stand for the racial injustices of the era.

But it was also an important milestone for Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, the faceless girl from the photo. In a special visit to BYU, Mulholland shared some of her experiences as a lifelong activist, highlighted in the new film An Ordinary Hero, directed by her son, Loki Mulholland.

Mulholland became aware of the inequality around her while still in her childhood. One summer while visiting her grandmother in Georgia, a friend dared her to walk with her through the town’s black neighborhood.

“Everybody who saw these two little white girls coming just sort of faded into the background,” Mulholland said. “They just went on behind the house, went inside. They might have been peeping out at us, but they disappeared.” Eventually the girls made it to the neighborhood’s school. “It was a one-room, unpainted shack up on rickety-looking piles . . . no glass in the windows, just shutters . . . [and] one outhouse.” At the opposite end of the town stood a newly built school for the white students, “the most magnificent building . . . for miles around.”

The difference between the two schools struck Mulholland. “I resolved then that when I had the chance, as a Southerner, I was going to do what I could to make the South the best that it could be for everybody.”

Mullholland’s 1961 mug shot

In 1961, Mulholland joined the Freedom Riders, a group of student activists who used interstate bus lines to travel throughout the South. Two Supreme Court cases – Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960) – had ruled segregated public buses unconstitutional, but enforcement was nearly nonexistent in the Jim Crow states. By traveling in groups of mixed ethnicity, the Freedom Riders challenged the South’s noncompliance.

The Riders faced opposition throughout the South as they refused to be segregated. After the historic Mother’s Day that saw the firebombing of a bus in Anniston, Alabama, Mulholland was called in as part of a second wave of Riders. She and her group left from New Orleans and traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, by train, where they were arrested for refusing to leave the station. Mulholland was 19.

“I ended up having free room and board for the summer, compliments of Mississippi,” she joked.

Mulholland continued her activism even after her release from prison two months later. She was the first white student to enroll at Tougaloo College, integrating the school. There she made several friends – including student Anne Moody, professor John Salter and the Reverend Ed King – with whom she later joined in the famous 1963 Jackson Woolworth’s sit-in.

The sit-in began with Moody and two other black students – Pearlena Lewis and Memphis Norman – sitting at the “Whites Only” lunch counter; Mulholland stood outside as a lookout. But the crowd grew rowdy, taunting the sitters with racial slurs and pouring condiments over their heads. Taunts gave way to violence, and Norman was pulled from his seat and beaten on the floor. Moody and Lewis were likewise pulled away but returned to their seats.

By then Mulholland had entered the store, just in time to see man approaching the counter with a knife. She instinctively cried out, “Annie, he’s got a knife!” With the mob’s eyes now on her, Mulholland joined her friends at the counter, where the historic photo was taken by Fred Blackwell moments before the crowd turned on him as well. Though he had initially sided with the mob, made up of his friends and neighbors, Blackwell’s sympathies changed to the activists. “That is the power of . . . nonviolent direct action,” Mulholland said.

When asked what had motivated her throughout the years, Mulholland answered, “As a kid I went to Sunday school, and we had to memorize verses. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ And if we got it right, we got a gold star on our Bible. I got a pretty collection.”

But Mulholland began to notice that those scriptures weren’t being applied. “I could see clearly that we weren’t practicing what we preached. We said we believed this, but we weren’t doing it.” She has spent her life since then doing her best to fix that discrepancy of belief and action.

As she opened her remarks, Mulholland said to the gathered students, “Your generation is the future. You are the ones who can go out and change the world. My generation had its turn to do what it could, and we’ve made some progress.”

She added, “Take what you can from what we did, but with the new ways of doing things, and go forth. There’s a long way to go.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Women’s Studies Program for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.