Learn about the Freedom Riders...
Former Freedom Rider urges students to march on
DURHAM – A young white woman of privilege, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland didn’t face the prejudices of her darker-skinned contemporaries in the Jim Crow South. She wasn’t prohibited from sitting at lunch counters. She wasn’t relegated to substandard drinking fountains because of the color of her skin. She wasn’t forced to fight her way through angry mobs on her way to school.
But Mulholland, the daughter of a strict segregationist, knew it wasn’t right.
“I could see that we did not practice what we preached, and I resolved, in the era of mass resistance, that when I had the chance to help change things, I would seize the moment,” she told a standing-room-only crowd gathered for Carolina Friends School’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration Monday.
Her chance came as a student at Duke University in the early 1960s, when she joined the picket line of black students from what was then North Carolina College (now N.C. Central University). That led to her involvement in sit-ins, voter-registration drives and, perhaps most famously, the Freedom Rides, an effort by activists to test interstate travel desegregation laws in the South.
When she arrived in Jackson, Miss., as part of the June 4, 1961, Mississippi Freedom Ride, Mulholland, then 19, was arrested. She ended up spending more than two months in the Parchman Farm prison. Her story is among those chronicled in the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders,” available online at http://to.pbs.org/mP8dX8.
The documentary inspired the folks planning Carolina Friends’ annual MLK celebration to invite her to speak before students, parents and community members on Monday.
Event emcee Thomas Patterson, director of youth programs in Duke University’s Continuing Studies department, said Mulholland’s story was also his own.
“It’s my story because I know what it’s like to go to separate schools,” he began.
He recalled busloads of white kids making obscene gestures as they passed by him and his siblings and having to drink water from a pipe protruding from the wall, while whites had the luxury of a “pearl white, enamel water fountain.”
He thanked Mulholland for risking her life in the name of equality.
In addition to Mulholland’s address, Monday’s program included performances by the school’s drumming ensemble, community chorus and children’s choir and a dance presentation by upper school students. Also performing were actors Doug Bynum and Kashif Powell, who presented a scene from GoingBarefoot’s production of “The Parchman Hour,” which celebrates the work of the Freedom Riders.
Carolina Friends was founded in 1962 as one of the first schools in the South to model racial integration as a core principle. As a private Quaker school, the school stresses the importance of peaceful conflict resolution and the importance of service, in alignment with King’s ideals.
While most schools close for the MLK holiday, Carolina Friends each year opens its doors for half a day on the third Monday in January to honor the civil rights leader’s legacy through celebration and service. Before the all-school assembly, students sorted books for a Book Harvest drive, collected nonperishable foods for a food drive and engaged in civil rights-focused educational activities.
Mulholland urged those assembled to celebrate the legacy of King by honoring not just the civil rights leader, but “the thousands, even millions, who were and are part of his crusade for justice and nonviolence in the world: the Negro citizens of Montgomery who would not ride buses, the children who walked through mobs to integrate public schools, the college students who by the hundreds sat at lunch counters, waiting to be served.”
They were “ordinary, everyday people just like you” who saw things that needed to be done and followed the lead of King, she told the crowd.
“Today, we are still facing problems – war, discrimination of many kids, ethnic, racial, religious, gender, gender orientation, just for starters,” Mulholland said. “We face poverty, health care issues and much more. And you, today’s students, are the future. Learn from the past. Be inspired by Dr. King, and apply it to your own life. And march forward until victory is truly won.”