"They called me 'race traitor'": Joan Trumpauer Mulholland's lifetime of resistance
Last year I began working as a stage manager for Join the Student Sit-Ins, an interactive theater program at the museum set in 1960. The program simulates the training sessions students at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) like North Carolina A&T and Bennett carried out in the weeks following the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. While seated in front of the historic, once-segregated Woolworth’s counter, visitors are taught songs and tactics from the movement by an 18-year-old student organizer named Samuel.
One day during setup, I heard a voice behind me ask when the show would begin. I turned to answer and did a double take when I realized the voice belonged to Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland.
By 21, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland had demonstrated against segregation dozens of times, been imprisoned for her work as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and been hunted for execution by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Her brave efforts landed her among many angelic troublemakers, as they were known; activists like John Lewis, Diane Nash, and Julian Bond whose perspectives are reflected in Join the Student Sit-Ins. I have long admired the contributions of these heroes, who inspired me to hop on a bus at 18 from Washington, D.C., to Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the police killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. There, we registered voters and marched with local organizers and the NAACP. I was so full of hope and optimism while there and absolutely crushed when the newly re-elected prosecutor announced non-indictment for the officer responsible. Despite setbacks, I know that it is vital to continue the effort toward equality just like Mulholland and her fellow activists.
Joan Trumpauer was born to a white family in Washington, D.C., and raised in Arlington, Virginia. Her mother, a segregationist from Georgia, descended from enslavers. Despite this, Mulholland developed a keen awareness of the systemic racism that surrounded her daily life and a desire to stop it. She secretly attended integrated Bible studies that expanded her worldview and solidified for her the belief that all people are “God’s children.”
In a world where desegregation at the college level was imminent, Mulholland’s mother insisted on enrollment at Duke University to ensure her daughter became a “proper” southern lady. Mulholland resisted immediately and skipped out on rushing a sorority, a move considered so outlandish the university sent a counselor for a wellness check. Her second semester, she joined the Durham sit-ins, where she was arrested and taken in for psychological evaluation. She ultimately dropped out after Duke’s Dean of Women pressured her to cease her activism. Mulholland moved back to the D.C. area to join the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), a SNCC affiliate based at Howard University.
Mulholland worked on Capitol Hill and organized with activists like Stokely Carmichael. Together with other NAG members, they began the Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961. The Freedom Rides consisted of organized action to expose how Jim Crow laws in the South maintained racial segregation, despite federal mandates banning racial segregation on interstate buses, train lines, and in waiting rooms. The participants, known as Freedom Riders, sought to expose this lack of enforcement, knowing full well their actions could lead to being assaulted, arrested or, at worst, killed. The Freedom Riders encountered a violent mob in Alabama that bombed their bus on Mother’s Day and just a month later, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett ordered their arrest and incarceration at Parchman Farm, the plantation home of the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
Death row was cleared out just for the Freedom Riders and they were subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Nevertheless, the Freedom Riders persisted. They sang songs, taught each other bits of different languages they knew, and discussed the importance of discipline and Gandhian nonviolence. Using envelopes from the occasional mail she received, Mulholland improvised her own deck of playing cards to play solitaire. Mulholland had no plans or place to go until the fall, so she opted to serve additional time on her two-month sentence to work off some of the $200 fine she had incurred demonstrating.
When Mulholland was released, she continued to break barriers by enrolling as the first white full-time student at Tougaloo College, an HBCU in Jackson, Mississippi. She believed integration must be a two-way street, much to the anger of local segregationists who attempted to have the college shut down. At Tougaloo, she was initiated into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority as the first white member, organized with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and worked with NAACP Mississippi Field Secretary Medgar Evers and Professor John Salter.
In May 1963, Mulholland, Salter, and others sat at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Jackson. This protest is often considered the most violent of the sit-ins. The protesters were doused in food, cut with broken glass, hit with brass knuckles, and burned with cigarettes. The police stood by while men were kicked and punched, and women were yanked from the counter by their hair. Obscenities filled the air, Mulholland recalled. “They called me ‘race traitor,’” she said. The next day, the Jackson Daily News published an iconic photo of the protest that quickly spread around the globe. The image shows a group of men pouring sugar, ketchup, and mustard over the heads of demonstrators. The hate and sinking feeling of what may happen next is palpable.
As Mulholland continued fighting for equality in 1963, the violence and danger intensified. Three weeks after the Woolworth’s protest, Medgar Evers was killed in his driveway. A month after Mulholland took part in the August 1963 March on Washington, four Black girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama. Mulholland refers to this as the “saddest day in the movement.” The next spring, Mulholland and four other activists were stopped by the KKK as they left Canton, Mississippi. The Klansmen surrounded the car and beat the driver. “That night on the road out of Canton,” Mulholland said, “we were all convinced that it was the end.” Luckily Mulholland and her friends were able to escape, but not without some consequence. An informant within the KKK later confirmed that their assailants had been ordered to kill them and because they weren’t successful, the Klansmen killed three other civil rights workers: Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.
Mulholland continued organizing with CORE and SNCC during the Freedom Summer of 1964 and later participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. After the movement, Mulholland returned to Virginia, married, and had five sons. She worked at the Smithsonian Institution and the Departments of Commerce and Justice before teaching English as a second language at an Arlington elementary school. Now retired, she can be found sporting one of her dozens of socially conscious shirts.
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland stood on the frontline of the movement to desegregate public spaces, a not-so-far-away piece of our history. For me, her contributions resonate deeply, as I am reminded of the stories my grandmother told me of her early life in the Jim Crow South. She was barred from attending an Elvis Presley concert at Dallas’s Cotton Bowl, which once enforced a strict segregation policy. She cried as my great-grandmother pleaded with tickets in hand, but the answer was no. The happiest memories of my childhood were state fair events at the Cotton Bowl, as it had been desegregated long before I was born. I can only wonder if I would have all those fun memories if not for the sacrifices of Mulholland and so many others. Today in 2020, the City of Dallas is working to confront and commemorate that history. Although the last Woolworth’s closed in 1997, it lives on as Foot Locker, holding the distinction of oldest retailer on the New York Stock Exchange, and the former Greensboro location is home to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
There was a time when I looked back on my Ferguson experience with cynicism, wondering if my efforts were meaningless. The despair I felt then cannot even begin to compare with the happiness that followed the election of Ferguson’s first Black mayor. When I think of the progress made during the Civil Rights Movement and over the last seven years of the Black Lives Matter movement, I am reminded of my favorite quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Jasmine Daniel is a former stage manager for the HistoryAlive! Theater Program and intern for the museum’s National Youth Summit. Daniel studied history at Howard University.