Why We Became Freedom Riders

A student from Garrison Elementary School listens to Freedom Rider Joan Mulholland, who enrolled at a historically black institution for college in the 1960s.
A student from Garrison Elementary School listens to Freedom Rider Joan Mulholland, who enrolled at a historically black institution for college in the 1960s. (Courtesy Of Steven Nero)

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Joan Mulholland, 65, of Arlington, is a teaching assistant in the English as a second language program at an elementary school.

I was 19 and living in Washington 46 years ago when I joined the Freedom Riders. I'd grown up in Arlington and was involved with a group called NAG (Nonviolent Action Group, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee affiliate based at Howard University). We'd held sit-ins in Arlington and Glen Echo in the summer of 1960 and other places in the metropolitan area.

Hank Thomas, one of our NAGGERS, had gone on the initial Freedom Ride. We'd kidded him, telling him that he was taking a vacation when he left on that ride, but then news photos appeared of him, stunned and bleeding, by the burning bus near Anniston, Ala. The call went out for other students to come down and keep the rides going.

Several others from our group went down first. Paul, one of our members, called late one night from a besieged church in Montgomery, Ala. He said they were surrounded by segregationists and trapped in the church. He said he couldn't talk long but to send more people. I got the message and spread the word among the Howard group. His call galvanized us. I decided to go after several others had gone. It was just the right time for me.

By then, I was already pretty involved in civil rights. I guess my awakening started when I was in high school. My mother was from rural Georgia and was a strict segregationist until her dying day (she died in 2000). My father was from southwest Iowa. He was not a segregationist, but he thought you should work for change through the system. He and my mother just agreed to disagree.

But the church I went to, Little Falls United Presbyterian, taught that we were all equal in the eyes of God. I just felt that if we were going to teach this and say it, we should mean it. I was a member of the youth group at the church. Apparently, through the black YMCA, some of the black high school kids would come to our youth meetings. We were told by the minister to keep it secret because at that time it could cause anything from the church being firebombed to the church taking some kind of action against it. It was pretty daring at the time. This made an impression on me. I think this made me sort of ready when the chance came to do something. That chance came when I was a student in Durham.

I was a student at Duke University in 1960, when the protests started there. Black students from North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) who were holding sit-ins in Durham came to speak to our youth group at Duke. When the chaplain arranged the meeting, there were the same fears we'd had in Virginia, so we were told to keep the meeting quiet and just invite those we thought would want to come. When they invited us to join them on the picket line, this seemed to me the call I had been waiting for.

Segregation was unfair. It was wrong, morally, religiously. As a Southerner -- a white Southerner -- I felt that we should do what we could to make the South better and to rid ourselves of this evil.

In early June 1961, I was in a group of Freedom Riders that flew from D.C. to New Orleans to catch the train to Jackson, Miss. In New Orleans, we stayed with representatives from the Congress of Racial Equality. They told us what was going on and got us psychologically ready. The moment came when we got the ticket and took the Illinois Central from New Orleans to Jackson. The original plan was to continue the ride from Alabama, where the first Freedom Riders had been savagely attacked. But the plan quickly expanded, and riders came into Jackson from all directions. The idea was to challenge segregation in all interstate transportation, not just buses, and to get media attention. Small groups of Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson every day or two to keep the police busy.

We were also trying to fill the jails. When we arrived in Jackson, we went to the white waiting room and took a seat. The police told us to "move on and move out." Gwen, another of our members, spoke for us and said she saw no reason why we had to move. We got arrested and were taken to the city jail.

Most riders remained behind bars about a month. Because I had no plans and no place to go until school opened in the fall, I served my two-month sentence and additional time to work off my $200 fine. Each day in prison took three dollars off the fine. I paid up just in time to enroll that fall at Tougaloo Southern Christian College, a historically black institution north of Jackson.

From the time I first saw news photos of Charlayne Hunter integrating the University of Georgia and all she went through, I'd thought that integration shouldn't be a one-way street: Whites had to make the journey, too. So I started applying to Negro colleges. Since the school's charter was older than the state's Jim Crow laws, Tougaloo decided to accept white students, and I made it in.

When I think about my role and the role of whites in the Freedom Rides and the movement in general, I think things could certainly have changed without our participation. But I think it helped that I was white and a Southerner, because white segregationists saw other white Southerners taking a stand for change.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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