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The Iconoclast

2/17/2013, 4:20 p.m.

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.