Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


In the lead-up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I heard a talk by an Arlingtonian who personally shared some dangers of King’s civil rights struggles.

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland is known best as a young white woman at the 1963 lunch-counter confrontation with racists in Jackson, Mississippi. But her 1950s youth in Arlington did much to mold her into a nonconformist Freedom Rider.

At the Jan. 13 talk organized by the Arlington Central Library and Encore Learning, Mulholland was joined by M.J. Obrien, author of a book on the Jackson event We Shall Not Be Moved. He showed a portion of the recent film on Mulholland called “An Ordinary Hero,” produced by her son Loki.

Mulholland recalled her childhood as a member of Little Falls Presbyterian Church when it first invited “colored” children to a spaghetti dinner. She clashed with her parents, who insisted she attend Duke University when she wanted a more-progressive religious school. “I was told by my mother that blacks were inferior, smelly, diseased and that white people rule,” she said.

By age 19, Joan displayed a mind of her own. She joined Howard University youth in the Nonviolent Action Group. In June 1960, 13 “bible-reading students” successfully challenged the whites-only lunch counter at Cherrydale Drug Fair.

At Duke, Joan clashed with deans over race questions – a European trip paid for by her parents failed to alter her course. She joined Freedom Riders in Mississippi and was soon arrested for breaching the peace. She spent two months in hellish conditions at Parchman State Prison Farm.

Mulholland then transferred to a tiny black college called Tougaloo. “The northern civil rights activists were political, the southern ones religious,” she recalled. Her parents refused to pay tuition, so she obtained a scholarship and worked a campus job for 45 cents an hour.

Mulholland worked alongside Medgar Evers planning the sit-in at the Jackson Woolworth’s. Tactics of the group were known in advance by FBI agents, who can be seen watching passively in the photos “in dark glasses,” explained Obrien.

As the protest turned violent, Mulholland was grateful for the news cameras. “The press takes your story to the world.”

Arlington, meanwhile, was taking some time to change. Mulholland’s co-panelist, retired Principal Sharon Monde, described being one of the first black students at Swanson Junior High, Class of 1965. Her mates from Halls Hill were told “white people don’t eat fried chicken with their hands,” so they practiced using a fork. Monde recalled ordering hot chocolate at the Lee Highway People’s Drug – but not sitting at the counter. She was puzzled why she couldn’t catch a movie at the nearby Glebe Theater and instead took the No. 3F bus downtown. Her mother told her, “We want you to have a city experience.” Mount Olivet Methodist church was the only one that permitted blacks at teen dances, she said.

Mulholland, as an adult, worked for federal agencies and as a teacher’s assistant in Arlington, where she raised her five boys.

This Sunday, she was keynote speaker at Arlington’s County’s King Day celebration.

I asked Mulholland about her relationship with her mother in later life. “She was a good grandmother,” Joan replied. “But on her deathbed at Fairfax hospital, she cried, `They got me in the colored room!’ She checked out of a world that had moved beyond her.”