You have likely seen the photo. You might have even stared at it, too. It was taken on May 28, 1963, and it captures the nonviolent tactic that civil rights activists employed at that time to fight for equal access to space for all people: a sit-in. In it, three people sit at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s department store in Jackson, Miss., as an angry crowd of white men stands behind them.
Joan Mulholland is the white woman sitting in the middle, her hair pulled up in a bun, her face turned away from the camera. Behind her, a young man stands with his right arm outstretched, dumping a container of sugar on her.
“I think that photo has become the most widely used sit-in photo because there is so much violence inherent in it, but not actually happening,” Mulholland said. “I’ve seen several kids’ books where its used as the basis for an illustration.”
Mulholland has been asked often about that photo over the years, and now, she will likely be asked about it even more since she is the only one left to describe what it felt like to sit there, a receptacle of hate.
The black woman who sat to her left, Anne Moody, a fellow college student who was also covered in mustard and other condiments that day, died in 2015. And the man who sat to Mulholland’s right, John Salter Jr., a professor with Native American roots who was burned with cigarettes and slashed on the back of his head during that sit-in, died last week.
“A giant has fallen,” read a message on the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation’s Facebook page after Salter’s death. “The lunch counter now has two empty seats.”
How Mulholland came to occupy that third seat is a powerful story. The 77-year-old who lives in Arlington shared it with me on a recent afternoon at her home. But as we spoke, she also forced me to look beyond those three chairs.
She forced me to focus on who else could be seen in the photograph and who couldn’t.
She pointed out the FBI agents and an older man in the crowd who wore a hat. He was from a neighboring town and egged on the young men, she said.
She also spoke about the man behind the camera who captured that scene, the photographer from the Jackson Daily News, Fred Blackwell.
“To me, the story of that photo, the important thing is the photographer,” Mulholland said. He had gone to the same school as many of the high school students seen in the photograph, she said. “These were his people.”
She recalled him standing on that counter while the sit-in stretched on for three hours. Only later did she learn how he came to view the demonstrators that day.
In her home, on a wall next her couch, two of Blackwell’s photographs from that day hang in a frame, along with a note signed by him. It reads, “Joan — Like I have said a hundred times — yall were the bravest people I ever saw.”
Mulholland said she was not scared during that sit-in or at others that she participated in before and while attending Tougaloo College, a historically black institution in Mississippi where she was one of the few white students. She was one of the Freedom Riders, and they knew the risks, she said.
“It was a given that any of us could be killed at any moment,” she said. “Once you accept the idea you could die, what is there to worry about?”
Mulholland, who grew up in Arlington and later raised five boys there, wasn’t taught by her parents to care about racial equality. Her mother believed in segregation and her father, while he didn’t share her mother’s beliefs, thought change needed to happen from the top down.
Her activism, she said, grew from her belief in Bible verses such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and what she saw happening around her. When she was 10 and visiting her grandmother in a Georgia logging town, she and a friend dared each other to walk through the black side of town.
They walked together, watching as people went indoors to avoid them, and they eventually came to the schoolhouse. On the white side of town, the school was a post-World War II building that was a point of pride. What the girls found that day was a one-room shack that had never been painted, had a pump for water, a potbelly stove for heat and a single outhouse.
“That just did it for me,” Mulholland said. She couldn’t put it into words at that age, she said. “But I knew when I had the chance, I would do my part to help change it. And that came with the sit-ins.”
On a poster board in her home, she keeps another black and white photo of herself sitting at a lunch counter in Arlington. She uses it for presentations she gives — and at this time of year, around Black History Month, she is often busy with speaking engagements and appearances.
“I do what I can to keep the message out there, encouraging folks to carry it forward,” she said. “We need to start moving forward again, not standing still.”
There are many ways people can do that, she said. Not everyone has to demonstrate.
“For everyone on the front line, someone has to have their back,” Mulholland said. “I’m not marching anymore. My knees have been operated on too much. But I can make signs. I can offer to put people up in my house.”
In that famous photograph, three people sit at the counter, but when Mulholland looks at it, she also sees the many people who aren’t in the frame.
She sees the people who dropped off the demonstrators and the people who picked them up.
She sees the people who talked to the press and the people who kept Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary, informed.
She sees the people who washed her and other women’s nylon stockings after the sit-in, so that they could clean that day off themselves and keep walking toward the next.