Today is the 80th birthday of Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. You’re probably more familiar with her face than her name. Maybe it was her 1961 mugshot for her participation in the Freedom Riders, a group of Black and white activists who challenged segregation in the south. Or the image of having food dumped over her head in 1963 as she and other activists staged a sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter.
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Arlington, Virginia, Mulholland knew from an early age that she wanted to be a part of the civil rights movement. This flew in the face of accepted behavior for a young Southern woman in that day and age. More than that, she was the great-granddaughter of slave owners and the daughter of segregationists. And although she was eventually disowned by her family, Mulholland (then Trumpauer) stayed the course.
“Rid Ourselves of this Evil”
Mulholland’s motivation was simple. “Segregation was unfair,” she said. “It was wrong, morally, religiously. As a Southerner — a white Southerner — I felt we should do what we could to make the South better and to rid ourselves of this evil.”
Alongside better-known civil rights activists such as Stokely Carmichael, Dr. Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, Mulholland participated in historic marches and dozens of sit-ins. She also helped kick over a number of racial barriers. She got in a lot of “good trouble” as John Lewis called it. She eventually went on to work for the Smithsonian, the Department of Commerce and the Justice Department, then began teaching English as a second language.
Although Mulholland made a living as a teacher, she has remained a civil rights activist and a living example of what one person can do. “Anyone can make a difference,” she said. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. Find a problem, get some friends together and go fix it. Remember, you don’t have to change the world … just change your world.”
To learn more about Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and her incredible courage and dedication to civil rights, watch the documentary, “An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland,” which was written and directed by her son Loki.
Scroll through the gallery above for a few of the highlights of Mulholland’s involvement in the 1960’s civil rights movement.