Hundreds packed the auditorium of Rock Ridge High School Saturday afternoon to hear and see a woman described in the history books as “an ordinary hero.”
Civil rights activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland’s police mug shot from the summer of 1961 is one of the most famous in U.S. history. She told those gathered for the “Through Our Eyes: An Ordinary Hero” event what led to that arrest and several others.
Mulholland, a great-granddaughter of Georgia slave owners, grew up conflicted. “Segregation and racism were a way of life,” she said. And her family believed that, “no matter how bad things might be, at least you weren’t black.”
While growing up in Arlington, she remembers trying to reconcile what was taught at church with how her family, friends and neighbors lived.
“I didn’t understand. … In Sunday school, we’d sing, ‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world—red and yellow, black and white,’” she said. “I guess I’ve always taken things somewhat literally. But sometimes I think it’s been to my advantage, to see things clearly.”
Mulholland joined the civil rights movement as a Freedom Rider at 19 years old, when she was a freshman at Duke University. Freedom Riders were activists who rode buses into Southern cities to challenge racial segregation.
Mulholland participated in more than three dozen sit-ins and protests, and was put on death row in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary with other Freedom Riders. She was involved in one of the most famous and violent sit-ins at the Jackson Woolworth lunch counter in 1963 and, that same year, helped plan and organize the march on Washington, DC.
For her actions she was disowned by her family, attacked, shot at, cursed at, and hunted down by the Ku Klux Klan for execution. She was branded as mentally ill, and was taken in for testing after her first arrest.
“A southern white woman doing this kind of thing. The only explanation was that she was mentally ill,” Mulholland said, later adding, “I knew what I was doing was keeping to my understanding of Christianity, and the founding of this country and the Declaration of Independence.”
There was an advantage to those involved in the movement, she added. “Once you took that fatal step of stepping outside the bounds of acceptability there was no turning back. So you could only go forward. And that’s what we did.”
After leaving Duke, Mulholland became the first white student to enroll in Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and the first white member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. That news prompted loud applause from other Delta Sigma Theta members in the audience, including Loudoun County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), the first African-American to hold the position.
Saturday’s event was intended to ignite a conversation on social justice and the civil rights movement, according to organizers with the Sigma Mu Mu Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and the Loudoun International Youth Leadership Summit. The afternoon included performances by members of the Rock Ridge High School step team and students Jessica Howard and Kevin Lacey, who led the auditorium in a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”