Freedom Rider Joan Mulholland Recounts Civil Rights Diversity
The term iconoclast -- a person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions – applies most fittingly to Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. Having grown up in the Buckingham neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia during the1950s, Mulholland faced the conundrum of living an American ideal far removed from the realities of its white supremacist tenets. She remembers standing to sing "Dixie" and the pride of a community that counted Confederate Robert E. Lee as one of its sons.
"I grew up in the South and realized that we were a bunch of hypocrites. In church we quoted Bible verses like 'In as much as you have done it to the least of these, My brethren, you have done it unto Me,' and in school we would recite the Declaration of Independence and earn gold stars from proper recitation proper. We knew these documents by heart but we did not follow their precepts," Mulholland, 71, said.
For clarity, she notes a classmate in high school who was a year behind because Virginia schools, faced with a desegregation order, chose instead to shutter the school system altogether to sidestep the ruling.
At 19, Mulholland entered Duke University at the behest of her mother ("because it was a safely segregated institution"), but arrived in time to witness mass sit-ins and protests outside restaurants and general stores throughout Greensboro and Durham. Jarred by images of student (later journalist) Charlayne Hunter Gault being chased off a Georgia campus clutching the Madonna, Mulholland quickly joined the ranks of regular picketers in Durham, carrying signs that read "Target Democracy" and "Don't Buy Where You Can't Eat."
"I was arrested twice as a freshman at Duke and we had the school administration on our case. I left school rather than get expelled. I decided that if school integration was real, it worked in both directions so I applied to an historically Black institution, Tougaloo College outside of Jackson, Miss and was accepted. Tougaloo was also the center of civil rights activity in and around Jackson," Mulholland said.
On June 4, 1961, Mulholland arrived in Jackson, Miss. by train from New Orleans, LA as part of the Mississippi Freedom Ride and was immediately ushered into a waiting patty wagon. Her plan: serve the 2 month sentence in county jail during the summer, pay the $200 fine, and enter Tougaloo College when the fall semester began.
Instead, Mulholland was sent to the notorious Parchman Prison.
"We didn't know they were sending us to the state penitentiary. Parchman was at the top of the list of worst prisons in the country – right up there with Angola in Louisiana. It was the stuff of legends. We were cut off from all means of communication and psychologically, it was bad for women," Mulholland said.
Sexual violence against female civil rights activists has been well-documented by historians like Danielle L. McGuire, whose book At the Dark End of the Street, details efforts by Southern law enforcement to deter female "agitators" by subjecting them to vaginal examinations and strip searches by male guards.
"To make us fearful, the warden also emptied out death row and put us there. I was right next to the gas chamber. I joined the Freedom Riders because, for me, it was a chance to force the South to be true to itself and what it claimed at its core. We knew that the worse that could happen was death. When you reconciled that, there was nothing left to do but make it good," Mulholland said.
U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said of Mulholland, "In my mind, she is one of those sheroes who demands respect and acknowledgement. Clearly she was a lady ahead of her time."
Reunited recently with fellow Freedom Riders Dion Diamond and Reverend Reginald M. Green for a panel at First Rising Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Northwest, Mulholland told a capacity crowd that even in the most unlikely events, she found sprayings of change.
"The moment I stepped out of the patty wagon at Parchman Prison and the officer reached out to take my hand and help me down – I was this sweet, young thing – and against everything that he may have believed in with regard to white women being involved in helping Blacks gain equal rights, he went to do what he had been taught to do, which was to help me. I felt there was hope. His instincts were in the right place. He immediately tried to withdraw his hand, but helped me anyway. After all, there was a certain level of comfort in knowing that these (white) men were my relatives and had the ability to change based on my actions," Mulholland said.
Robert Luckett, Director of the Margaret Walker Center on the campus of Jackson State University, further explained Mulholland's participation in the Freedom Rides as a type of treachery to white Southerners that was almost unfathomable.
"She was not an outside agitator, she was a white Southern woman and for that reason she was even more dangerous to the white supremacist power structure. Here is this white Southern woman who is supposed to be protected by this system saying 'I don't need this protection and I don't believe in the system.' That made her extremely dangerous," Luckett said.
Today, Mulholland urges young people to get involved in the social change they want.
"Young people are our future, but they must be able to learn from the past. There is always a ripple effect that goes beyond every small action. Some young teenagers and college students sitting down at a lunch counter and traveling the interstate highways caused such violent reactions that the President signed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and ordered the desegregation of public accommodations. Those seemingly small acts issued the death nail to segregation," Mulholland said.
After the Freedom Rides, Mulholland studied at Tougaloo College and was a Freedom Summer organizer in 1964. She later worked at the Smithsonian with the Community Relations Service and at the Departments of Commerce and Justice before teaching English as a second language at an Arlington, VA elementary school. A new documentary about the life of Joan Mulholland, An Ordinary Hero, is scheduled for release later this month.