Saturday, September 14, 2013

An Ordinary Hero

Joan's mugshot when she was sent to Death Row in Mississippi

Hey, this is Randy....

Not too many people know that I really love history. I've even stopped listening to music in the car. Instead, I listen to history classes from iTunes university. Maybe it's because my dad was a history teacher before he took up math.

Anyway, tonight was a pretty memorable experience for me, in that I had the chance to meet and talk to a piece of living history. My friend Loki is a filmmaker, and he recently completed a film about his mother, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. She was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement. She was one of about 40 white Freedom Riders who spent time on death row in Mississippi. She met Dr. King, and most famously sat in at the Woolworth's lunch counter where she was harassed by bigots who put mustard and ketchup in her hair and physically grabbed and pushed her. She was also the first white student in America to attend an all-black college.

Here's a picture of Joan and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The film, called "An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland" walks you through Joan's experiences with archival footage interspersed with interviews.

It was amazing to meet and "interview" Joan for myself. I was so excited on the way over I told the boys: "This is like meeting Abraham Lincoln, or Jackie Robinson!" (Maybe a little exaggeration, but not much.) I've been thinking about questions to ask for a few weeks, and I was even a little nervous. First, I asked her if she experienced any reverse racism when she enrolled at Tougaloo, a black women's college. Without thinking, she replied, "No," then she added, everybody knew a white girl enrolled, and there was a lot of buzz about the new white girl, but she was never treated unkindly. (The movie tells about a cross-burning that took place on campus one night).

We didn't get to talk much about Woolworth's (in truth, it was Joan's birthday party I'd been graciously invited to attend, and I shouldn't have been bugging her at all), but she did say she'd been handled pretty roughly. She wasn't hurt. She said that the "order of attack" (her words) was white men first, then black men, then black women, and finally, Southern chivalry kicked in and white women were attacked last. The pictures below are as famous as almost any from the Civil Rights era:
Joan and two other protestor's at the sitting in at the counter at Woolworths.
Joan is facing away from the camera.
This series of pictures shows the protestors being abused as the police look on.
Joan had food dumped on her and was grabbed and thrown down. The gentleman in the picture
had cigarette burns on his back and neck. They refused to react.
Here you see Joan's face a little better.
She told me a story about Stokely Carmichael that doesn't appear in the movie. She talked about how the public perception of Stokely was that he was a militant extremist who hated white people. In the 70s she took her two little boys to see Stokely Carmichael speak. She approached the dais after his remarks only to meet a row of large bodyguards. They told her that Mr. Carmichael wouldn't be talking to her. She waved and caught his eye. He came straight over and pushed past the bodyguards. He embraced her and got down on his knees to meet her boys. I'm sure many eyebrows were raised, but Joan and Stokely were old friends.

Dax came over and I had prepped him to ask Ms. Trumpauer (now Mulholland) a question. He was a little shy, but he did ask if she'd met President Obama. She said she had, and then with a wink at me added, "And then he was on to the next person."

We also talked about Joan's parents reaction to her activism. She said her mother was against it as a Southerner. She didn't understand why Joan wanted to get involved, but they "agreed not to speak about it after awhile." Her father, from Iowa, wanted to see change, but didn't think she was going about it the right way. He believed in "top-down change brought on by the government, not town-to-town change" Joan was working on. But, she said, Brown v. Board of Education was 10 years in the past, and nothing had changed, so top-down wasn't working.

We had to leave early, but I asked one more question: How had she come from the same background as all those Southerners who justified and rationalized racism, and had such a different perception of African-Americans. She said, "I think it was Sunday School." She listened to all those things about how to treat others and how Jesus loves all the children, but she didn't see anybody living that way (Note: Joan is not talking about LDS Sunday school). Then she got to high school and memorized the Declaration of Independence. Nobody seemed to be living that, either, so she decided she would try to live it. That statement seemed pretty impressive to me.

I had a million more questions to ask, about her time on Death Row, about riding the Freedom Buses, and everything in between, but it was, after all, her birthday. To be honest, I found Joan Trumpauer to be, like the title of the movie says, quite ordinary. She seemed just like anyone else I've met. The difference is, she had the courage to stand up and make a difference. That's what makes her a hero.

Some Freedom Rider buses were firebombed in Mississippi.
I was too chicken to ask Ms. Trumpauer to take a photo with me though we talked for nearly an hour. Here's the "ordinary hero" in an uncredited Internet picture:

Joan today


  1. Amazing! I so wish I could have attended tonite, although I briefly got to chat with her when they brought the invite by. You totally should have asked for a picture!

  2. She sounds like an amazing woman!

  3. I should read your blog more. That's amazing. What a neat opportunity and I can't believe you were too chicken to ask for a picture with you. :)


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