It was early June 1961, and the young woman from Arlington chose her travel clothes carefully. A few days before, she had flown from Washington, DC, to New Orleans, and the last leg of her trip would be a train ride to Jackson, Mississippi.
The outfit she picked was typical of the times—a red-and-white gingham blouse and skirt, accented with crocheted lace and a cloth flower at the lapel. She added dainty cross-shaped earrings, pinned back her loose, honey-colored curls, and slipped a smart wicker purse over her arm before boarding the train. She looked, as her grandmother from Georgia might have described, “pretty as a picture.”
When the young traveler finally arrived in Jackson on June 8, she actually did have her photo taken, but not the kind you might think. This was a mug shot, snapped in Jackson’s city jail, right before being transferred to Hinds County Jail, and soon after that, the dreaded Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman Farm. Her crime, as listed on arrest records, was “breach of the peace.”
It’s rare that someone’s mug shot can be described as lovely, but this is true for Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who at just 19 years old was among 329 civil rights activists booked in Jackson that summer during the famed Freedom Rides of 1961.
The Freedom Rides were a series of peaceful protests organized by James Farmer, director of the civil rights group Congress of Racial Equality, and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Participants were challenging laws in Southern states that enforced segregation at transportation facilities despite an earlier Supreme Court ruling, Boynton v. Virginia, that prohibited segregation in interstate travel.
With an arrest identification board chained around her neck, Mulholland looks out of place in her mug shot compared to many of the other Jackson protestors who were arrested. Not because she is white—the train and bus rides included Black and white activists, both young and old, male and female—but because of her ethereal expression, which seemingly defies the anger and hostility being aimed at her.
It’s just one moment, but that look might just capture a lifetime of activism: an attitude that allowed Mulholland to be a part of history. A recipient of the 2015 National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award, Mulholland participated in more than 50 sit-ins and demonstrations by the time she was 23 years old. Besides the Freedom Rides, she was a key figure in the famous Jackson Woolworth sit-in, and her fingerprints were left on many key civil rights events, including the March on Washington, the Meredith March, and the Selma to Montgomery march.
For her actions, Mulholland was disowned by her family, attacked and threatened by mobs, hunted down by the Ku Klux Klan for execution, and even locked up for weeks in a death row cell. Her path has crossed with some of the biggest names in the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Andrew Young, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard LaFayette, Julian Bond, Dion Diamond, and dear friend Stokely Carmichael, among many others.
Northern Virginia magazine recently met with Mulholland, who is now 80 and still lives in her small brick home in Arlington, to learn what made her so determined.
Family Roots Entrenched in Racism
“Until fourth grade, I lived in Buckingham Apartments in Arlington, just eight-tenths of a mile from where I live now,” explains Mulholland, as she sits beside her living room hearth with one of her five grown sons, Loki Mulholland. “Most of my neighbors and friends at those apartments were Jewish families who had relocated from the North for good government jobs, and I think I was influenced early on by their liberal outlook.”
Loki, an Emmy-winning filmmaker, author, and founder and executive director of the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation, has spent the past several years documenting his mother’s life and helping her explore how her own family’s Southern roots and racist beliefs shaped her desire to fight for human rights.
Joan Mulholland’s father, Ealton, was from Iowa and had tolerant views of race relations, but her mother, Merle Chandler, was an avowed segregationist from Georgia.
As a child, Mulholland often visited her grandmother in rural Oconee. “I loved those visits to see Grandma Chandler, eating her good biscuits and grits,” she recalls. During one of those visits, when she was about 10, Mulholland began to comprehend the unequal treatment of Black and white people in the South.
She defied her parents and crossed the railroad tracks to see the “colored side of town” (considered a polite term back then) and was shocked by the primitive condition of the Black students’ one-room, unheated country schoolhouse. Mulholland realized that all the things she learned and sang about in Sunday school contradicted the way Black people were being treated in America. “I knew it was wrong and unfair, and I began wanting to change things.”
Mulholland attended several Arlington schools. At Nottingham, she remembers her class standing at attention each morning to sing “Dixie” in unison.
Early hints at Mulholland’s willingness to defy authority began to surface at Barrett Elementary, which had a creek running behind it that was declared off-limits by the teacher. “We would sneak out at recess to play in the creek, just bad little kids having good fun,” she laughs.
Mulholland says her early interests were in social studies. “And I was pretty good at spelling but a total klutz in sports, always the last to be picked for a team,” she sighs. “I remember a game where the counselors had us race our bikes around a circle. My friend fell and was crying, and I stopped to help her. The counselor was yelling at me to get up and keep going, but I told her no because I needed to help my friend. I still don’t like competitive sports because when someone wins, it always means someone else is feeling bad.”
Life-Changing Spaghetti Dinners
While in high school, Mulholland met her first chance to make a difference. At Sunday evening youth group spaghetti dinners at Little Falls United Presbyterian Church in North Arlington, she and her friends began meeting in secret with Black students from other churches. “We were told by the organizers not to tell anyone because there would be trouble if those who didn’t approve found out,” says Mulholland. It was the first time she was able to talk freely with young Black people, and she realized they had much in common and were fun to be around, just like anyone else her age.
After high school, Mulholland wanted to attend a small church college in the Midwest, but her mother insisted she enroll at Duke University in North Carolina. “My mom liked Duke because it was prestigious and segregated,” she says.
By spring, Mulholland and other Duke students began joining Black students from North Carolina College in protests against segregation.
She was arrested twice doing this and was even subjected to psychological evaluation. “They couldn’t understand why a Southern white woman would otherwise get involved in the civil rights movement,” says Mulholland.
After the first arrest, Mulholland and her roommate were summoned to meet with the dean at Duke. “It was late at night, and the only light on in the building was her office,” says Mulholland. “She motioned us in, locked the door, jiggled the keys to get our attention, and then asked if we had called our parents. When we said no, she pointed to the phone.” It was a turning point for Mulholland, who knew that after that call, there would be no going back home. “I knew Mama wouldn’t be happy with that call,” she says. “But my movement friends had become my family, and we all were very close.”
Mulholland withdrew from Duke after her first year. “I got my credits and split,” she says. By fall, she was supporting herself in Washington, DC, working secretarial jobs while volunteering with activist organizations near Howard University. That year, she participated in multiple sit-ins and picket demonstrations at lunch counters all over the DC area and at amusement park protests at Glen Echo Park in Maryland.
From her home in DC, Mulholland followed the progress of the first two Freedom Riders interstate buses as they rolled from DC toward New Orleans. On board were many of her colleagues, including civil rights icon Hank Thomas. When those rides met with brutal violence in the Alabama cities of Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Mulholland got a call to send more Riders.
Following the ideas of Gandhi, Mulholland’s group stepped up to replace those who had fallen by flying to New Orleans, where the Freedom Rides were supposed to end, and taking a train to Jackson. She recruited a friend from the Nonviolent Action Group, Stokely Carmichael, who later became the leading voice of the Black Power movement, to join her on the Freedom Rides. “I like to say that I was the first to bring Stokely to the Deep South,” says Mulholland.
“We were met in the white waiting room at the station by Capt. Ray, who called out, ‘Move on and move out. Y’all hear me? You gonna do it? Alright, you’re under arrest.’” The group was taken by paddy wagon to the city jail. “When I stepped down from the wagon, an officer took my hand to help, saying, ‘We don’t want anything to happen to you children.’ It gave me faith that underneath everything, people’s first reaction is basic decency, and that things would work out.”
While being held at Hinds County Jail, Mulholland secretly kept sheets of soft, crumpled paper, which served as a diary, in the deep hem of her skirt before being transferred to Parchman, where she was issued a standard uniform and placed in a death row–designated cell. “When they gave me my belongings back, the diary was still in my skirt, and I keep it in a memory book today,” she says.
Before her arrest, Mulholland had applied to and was accepted at Tougaloo College, a historically Black school in Mississippi, as she believed integration needed to be a two-way street. She spent the next three years majoring in history and was one of the first white women to join the historically Black Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Before graduating in 1964, she got to meet Martin Luther King Jr. when she escorted him across campus during one of his visits.
The Woolworth Sit-In
On May 28, 1963, while still at Tougaloo, Mulholland participated in one of the movement’s most famous sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter in Jackson, organized by Medgar Evers of the NAACP and Tougaloo professor John Salter. The sit-in activists, including Anne Moody, Pearlena Lewis, and Memphis Norman, endured hours of taunts and violence. Mulholland had been at a demonstration just down the street, calling in reports to Evers’ office, before she and fellow activists went to check on progress at Woolworth. Mulholland took a seat at the counter midway through the event as hecklers continued to grab, kick, and throw ketchup, mustard, sugar, and anything they could find at those at the counter.
At one point, a man dragged Mulholland out of the shop to a line of waiting police officers, who ended up arresting the man who dragged her. Mulholland was released and pushed through the crowds to return unhurt to the counter. “I don’t know how to describe it other than an out-of-body experience,” says Mulholland. “It was as though I was watching everything happen from above.”
A few weeks after the Woolworth sit-in, Mulholland would mourn the death of her friend Medgar Evers, who was assassinated by gunfire in his own driveway. Mulholland visits Evers’ grave in Arlington National Cemetery often. She campaigned for President Barack Obama’s first election, and after he won, Mulholland says she couldn’t celebrate the victory until she visited Evers’ grave. When election results were announced, she left her campaign button on his tombstone. “I needed to share the news with him; I wanted him to know.”
Marriage and Family
Although Mulholland continued to stay involved in the movement after graduation, participating in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 and the Meredith March in 1966, she returned to Virginia and followed the path of most women back then by getting married and having children. She named her five sons after people who had to overcome difficulty in life: Daniel (Bino), Django, Jomo, Loki, and Geronimo. She served as a teaching assistant in Arlington schools for 30 years, working with young English language learners.
The walls of her home are covered with a lifetime collection of photos and artifacts of civil rights struggles. “I grew up seeing the photos of my mom at sit-ins and artwork that reflected human rights,” says Loki. “It all just seemed normal for us. I would read the books on her shelves, and I remember studying one that had a thick section of photos of lynchings, which really affected me,” he says.
“We grew up with the Ladner sisters stopping by our house, and people like Ed King, Memphis Norman, John Salter,” says Loki. He pulls a copy of Breach of Peace off the living room shelf and opens it, pointing to a note signed by Freedom Rider Luvaghn Brown: “To Joan, The first white woman I ever trusted with my life. Love, Luvaghn.”
During this interview, Loki, who continues to work with key civil rights icons, pauses to receive a text from Ruby Bridges, who at 6 years old in 1960 Louisiana required federal marshals to walk her to her all-white school. “Tell your mom I said hello,” texts Bridges, who still lives in New Orleans. Joan Mulholland grins and responds to Loki, “You tell Ruby I said to get in some good trouble and that your mom sends her love.”
Is Mulholland proud of the role she played in promoting civil rights? “I was just one of thousands of students across the country doing stuff to make it a better world,” she replies. “We took care of legal segregation, but it’s up to future generations to take care of the racism that persists.” She falls back on her faith to explain. “We are all created in the image of the Almighty. If you disrespect someone because of what they look like, you are disrespecting the Almighty. One day, we will all meet again on the other side.”