In 1961 Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer became one of the first white female civil rights activists in Mississippi. She was famously photographed alongside Anne Moody and John Salter during a May 1963 sit-in at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s store on Jackson’s Capitol Street.
Trumpauer was born on 14 September 1941 in Washington, D.C., and raised in Arlington, Virginia. Her mother was a staunch segregationist, though her father was more moderate. Raised in the Presbyterian Church, the adolescent Trumpauer became aware of the contradiction between lessons of social justice inherent in Christianity and the injustice of segregation. Thirteen years old when the Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision, Trumpauer organized a group at her church in which the schoolchildren discussed impending integration. While a student at Duke University, Trumpauer attended a meeting at which students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College discussed the religious motivations for the sit-in movement. Trumpauer subsequently left Duke because the school did not support student involvement in the movement. She returned to Washington, D.C., and began work in California senator Clair Engle’s office. She also became involved with the Nonviolent Action Group, a precursor of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Trumpauer’s Washington apartment served as a clearinghouse for Freedom Riders. In 1961 Trumpauer flew to New Orleans with Stokely Carmichael to continue a Freedom Ride to Jackson, Mississippi. She and other activists were arrested, and she spent two months at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Many in the movement remembered this period in prison as a time when discussions of Gandhian philosophy and the singing of freedom songs solidified the movement and sharpened negotiating skills that activists used in later direct action campaigns.
After her release, Trumpauer became one of the first white students to enroll at Jackson’s Tougaloo College. Her time at Tougaloo was initially difficult because her presence was the first interracial experience for many of the students, but she later joined a sorority and made friends, including Mississippian Anne Moody, who became Trumpauer’s roommate. On 28 May 1963 the two women were part of a group that staged a peaceful sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Jackson. Counterprotesters, threatened by the “race-mixers” and “outside agitators” in their midst, intimidated and assaulted the students, punching them, kicking them, smearing them with food, and hurling ashtrays and glass figurines. Fred Blackwell of the Jackson Daily News took a photograph of Moody, Trumpauer, and Tougaloo professor John Salter covered in food and surrounded by angry faces that became one of the enduring images of the civil rights movement. Trumpauer also helped to plan the August 1963 March on Washington.
Trumpauer’s actions brought her to the attention of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which spied on her. Her activism and that of several Tougaloo professors led the commission to recommend that the State of Mississippi revoke the school’s accreditation.
Trumpauer graduated from Tougaloo in 1964 and continued her civil rights activities during that year’s Freedom Summer. She briefed Michael and Rita Schwerner on being white activists in Mississippi just one day before Michael Schwerner was kidnapped and murdered along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. Shortly thereafter, Trumpauer was in a car with Reverend Ed King, his wife, Jeanette, and a Tougaloo professor when their car was threatened by fifteen men on Highway 55 outside Canton. The professor received blows to the head, and the attackers demanded that the group of activists never return to Canton.
Trumpauer believed that her status as a southerner enabled her to better communicate with Mississippi’s whites during the 1960s. She felt she was the opposite of the derided “outside agitators” that many white southerners scorned. In a 1963 Ebony profile, Trumpauer said, “I’m trying to help America become what it says it is, as a Southerner I’m trying to improve, not destroy, our way of life; I’m a Christian who has read the Declaration of Independence.”
Trumpauer subsequently returned to the Washington, D.C., area, where she worked for the Smithsonian Institution and for the US government before becoming a teacher of English as a second language. Now retired, she travels and talks to students about her civil rights activities, often in conjunction with showings of an award-winning 2013 documentary film produced by her son, An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. She has established the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation to help educate youth about the civil rights movement and to empower them to make positive changes in their communities.
- Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
- G. McLeod Bryan, These Few Also Paid a Price: Southern Whites Who Fought for Civil Rights (2001)
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, www.mdah.state.ms.us/arlib/contents/er/sovcom/
- Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1969)
- An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland website, anordinaryhero.com
- Joan Sadoff, Robert Sadoff, and Laura J. Lipson, Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders (film 2002)