She was born into a white Southern family, to a racist mother who would tell her: “No matter how bad things are, at least ya aren't black.”
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland rebelled, and not just in the Virginia home where she grew up. At Duke University, she took part in a civil rights protest in 1960 — and the dean of women suggested counseling and demanded she cease participation.
Mulholland left Duke and went deeper into the South, where segregation was supported by law and churches.
She joined the Freedom Riders, helped black voters register and took part in the May 28, 1963 sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Jackson, Mississippi.
In iconic photographs from that day, young white men are seen dumping condiments and milkshakes on those sitting at the counter. And dead center, there’s a 21-year-old Mulholland.
“It’s not yesterday’s news, it’s history,” said Mulholland, now a 74-year-old mother of five, in an interview Tuesday. “We need to have it taught more.”
In that spirit, she is coming to the Puget Sound area to speak Thursday at Pierce College in Puyallup. Mulholland said she’ll be certain to make her references to the past relevant.
“I have to be careful when I say ‘President Kennedy went on TV. …’ and explain, at that time there were only three channels,” Mulholland said. “When the president went on TV, the nation came to a standstill.
“I talk about worrying if we could make a telephone call if things went badly and have to explain we carried a pocketful of dimes and had to find a working phone booth with a rotary telephone.”
Mulholland’s activism came at a price. Her family disowned her. She was arrested numerous times, once spending two months in a Mississippi prison rather than pay a $200 fine.
Upon her release, she became the first white student to enroll in the all-black Tougaloo College in Jackson, where she met and worked with activist Medgar Evers.
Embraced by civil rights leaders, Mulholland met them all — Dr. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Harry Belafonte. She admired their courage, their persistence, their nonviolent strategies.
Mulholland best knew Evers, who was shot and killed by a white racist.
“When President Obama was elected, I couldn’t get into rejoicing until I visited Medgar’s grave and left my Obama button there,” she said.
She speaks about twice a month, often to high school and college students. The questions are the same: Were you afraid? Would you do it again? Did you ever reconcile with your family?
The answers? No, yes and no.
“We didn’t allow fear. We had accepted we could die,” Mulholland said. “Panic-attack fear immobilizes you, it doesn’t keep you alive. Stay cool. At that Woolworth counter, people were beaten. It was a total out-of-body experience for me — the kind you hear soldiers have in battle.
“I watch documentaries on PBS (one of her sons, Loki, directed one), and feel detached. When I talk about the experience in Q and A’s, it comes alive again. It comes down to seeing something you don’t like and trying to do something about it.”
And her family — especially her mother?
“Five grandsons helped forge a relationship with her,” Mulholland said. “But we never agreed or came to a truce. On her deathbed she was saying, ‘They’ve got me in a colored room!’ She was the last of her generation, and the world had moved beyond her.”
Mulholland focuses on a new generation.
“Kids who want to be there when I talk, who haven’t been texting the whole time, they’re encouraging,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Think of an issue important to you and raise your hands.’ I’ll ask one what their idea is, and then ask all of them, ‘How many of you think that’s important?’
“Hands stay up, and I’ll tell the one who had the idea, ‘There’s your group.’ If you have a lot of hands stay up for two ideas, I’ll say, ‘There’s your coalition.’ ”
Civil rights remain an issue in today’s America, she said.
“What we did in the ’60s changed the law, but not the inherent racism that made those laws,” Mulholland said. “The Bible says we were all created in God’s image — nowhere is that image described as black or white, straight or gay.”
Civil rights activist to speak
What: Joan Trumpauer Mulholland will speak, show a 40-minute documentary and take part in a Q&A. Afterward, Mulholland and the audience are invited to a reception hosted by the Black Student Union.
When: Thursday at 7 p.m.
Where: Pierce College Puyallup, 1601 39th Ave. SE.
How much: $5 for Pierce College students, $10 general admission.