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Conversations with Joan and Loki Mulholland

‘Do to others as you would have them do to you,’ (Luke 6:21, New International Version). This was one of the many verses that Joan Trumpauer Mulholland memorized as a child, and it was one of the many verses that inspired Mulholland to take action during the Civil Rights Movement. Many of the lessons taught to her in church were a complete contrast to the world around her in the late 1950-60s, a time when segregation was still rampant. Even at a young age, Mulholland knew something was wrong, and she determined to do what she could to bring forth a better way of life. 

One of Joan’s most memorable acts of activism came on May 28, 1963, best known as the ‘Woolworth Sit-in’ in Jackson, Mississippi.

Civil Rights Icon, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and her Emmy award-winning son, Loki Mulholland.

SR1 interviewer, Kachelle Pratcher, sat down with Civil Rights Icon Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and her son Loki Mulholland, an Emmy-awarding film producer. 

This is their story:

Kachelle: Can you walk us through the day of the Woolworth Sit-in. What was that like, and what is something you can remember that will always stick with you? 

Joan: Louise Chaney and I were what they called ‘spotters’. We were not supposed to be in the sit-in. Three guys that were students were chosen to start the sit-in who were all from Mississippi or at least grew up in Mississippi. So, they went in to Woolworth and we weren’t expecting things to go on like they did. Louise and I stood at the picket lines, maybe a block or so down the street and we didn’t think they would be arrested right away but they were. So, we phoned Medgar Evers’ office and told them they had been arrested and then we decided to go down and see what was going on because there hadn’t been any squad cars or paddy wagons going down to Woolworth. When we walked in, that was about the time that Memphis Lorman was pulled off a stool and actually beaten senseless. He was attacked by an ex policeman and an undercover policeman pulled the attacker off of him and arrested both of them. 

Louise and I was in this big crowd and there were two black girls still at the counter. Our chaplain, Ed King, a white guy, said for me to sit down in between them where there was an empty stool. Instantly, Annie Moody and I were pulled off the stool and pulled towards the door.  When we got to the door the police arrested the guy that had attacked me but I was free to walk back in. It was too big of a crowd so we got whatever seat we could and set down. We couldn’t see between the two groups at the lunch counter, it was such a mob. It was an excellent time for us to demonstrate, but a mistake was not checking the Central Hinds schedule. Those students had exam week and they could leave campus and go to Woolworth to get lunch. When they got up to the counter and saw integrated groups at the counter, they started acting up and trying to outdo each other and see what name they could call us or what ugly things they could say and they were dumping stuff on us. They were trashing the store. 

When they saw John Salter, a Native American who looks white, sit down, that’s when the violence really cut loose. They hit him with brass knuckles, so in the picture some of that is blood and not ketchup. They also mixed water and black pepper and threw it in in his eyes and put cigarettes out on his neck to the point that he still has scars from it. And we just set there nonviolently. 

My hero from this day is the guy that took the pictures. Ed Blackwell of Jackson, knew a lot of the guys in the crowd. After standing on the counter for three hours taking pictures, he could see both group of sit-ins, we couldn’t see each other. He said after three hours his sympathy shifted from his friends to the nonviolent demonstrators. A white student at a rival high school said that his heart was changed after seeing the pictures that evening. Eventually, Tougaloo College president got word of the sit-in and came down and tried to get the store manager to close the store and he wouldn’t do it. So, the president called the regional/national office of Woolworth and they advised the manager to close it. Dr. Bridal set down at the lunch counter to talk to the press and I think he was the only college president that actually set at the same lunch counter where his students were sitting. 

When the store manager closed the store, everyone had to go out and the police agreed to let cars come up and pick us up and take us back to Medgar Evers’ office. The police would not come in the store while we were sitting there because the Supreme Court ruled, the week before, that sitting-in was a right of freedom of speech so they could not come in and make an arrest unless the store manager invited them in and close the store. The police would always throw out there they couldn’t come in because the Supreme Court said so. I had been involved in two of the cases that led to this Supreme Court decision. So that was the special irony that I had been involved twice in the decision that kept the police from coming in at Woolworth to break things up. 

Kachelle: How has your mom experiences shaped your involvement in the storytelling of the civil rights movement?    

Loki:First and foremost, she’s still mom! I get ask that a lot in regards to my mother but at the end of the day she’s still mom. I’m just Joan’s son. Her role in the civil rights movement definitely shaped our lives. The film on my mom was a passion project for me. The original idea was to use multiple people from the Civil Rights movement but every time we would pitch it, people would say that’s interesting but I never heard that story before, and I would just brush it off and say that’s my mom. So, it all became focused on my mom’s story and her involvement in the movement. From there, I realized once we did a screening at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) at the Oxford Film Festival college educated students never heard any of this. 80 percent of the film takes place in your state, how do you not know this? I didn’t realize that most people don’t know any of this history and we forgot a lot of it through osmosis growing up and stuff. 

People only know that Dr. King had a dream and Road Parks sat on a bus, so that became a catalyst for us to create a foundation, a platform, or a way to share this story with schools. We developed a book, a movie, and a book for younger kids. A lot of people have heard about the civil rights movement but they don’t understand the context and the history of our country and why we even needed a civil rights movement, and why we still need work today. The “Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero,” put that into context. My mothers’ work and others in the movement helped my life, I don’t have to sit at the lunch counters because my mom and others did, so I need to do what I can do to help. My voice is through these films, I’m taking the talents I’ve been given and blessed with to try and use those for good. I can’t do everything but I can do something because to do nothing is not an option, so you have to make sure you’re doing something. 

Part of the reason why we still speak today is because many can’t, they were killed and some were permanently damaged from the movement and my mom is fortunate to have the ability to go out and share. There is that responsibility because the work never ends and that’s part of making sure these stories are told. The civil rights movement is one of the greatest civic engagements, civil responsibility projects in American history. It was ordinary people, like kids, young as elementary school out there making a difference, doing what was right even though it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t just Rosa Parks and Dr. King, there were thousands of people wanting to make a difference. That’s why the film is called an “Ordinary Hero” my mom is just as ordinary as they come. People say she’s extraordinary but she lives her life like everyone else does and she made a choice when a lot of people didn’t and they might’ve felt something and their conscious may have been frightened but they didn’t harbor on that. My mother chose her conscious. 

Kachelle: Joan & Loki, what are some of the biggest myths people believe about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s? 

LOKI: I believe its misconception, it has shifted overtime. There was so much work behind the scenes and on the streets. There’s so much work that went into planning and organizing the events that existed. People of all backgrounds were involved. The issue now is that everything has ben condensed down to ‘I Have a Dream,’ we condensed things down to Dr. King legacy. The movement was much more than Dr. Kings’ speech, several sitting at a lunch counter, or just the freedom riders. These were ordinary people standing up to make a difference and that’s what scares people, they don’t believe they can actually do something like this. 

JOAN: When I’m speaking and people act like I’m someone special, I explain that you wouldn’t know about me if my son didn’t create this film. There were thousands of other students and people doing the exact same thing, my son just happened to be a film maker. To this day, I’m surprised that people I meet tell me how they were a part of several sit-ins. Thousands come out the woodworks who you would never expect to be involved. I meet people all the time that share stories with me about their role in the Civil Rights movement. 

Joan Mulholland is definitely one of thousands of unsung heroes that sparked change during the Civil Rights Movement. Below are some fun facts you may not know about Joan. 

  1. First white student to enroll in Tougaloo College 

  2. First white student accepted into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. 

  3. Helped organize the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ in August 1963 

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