SIXTY YEARS AGO, 19-YEAR-OLD JOAN MULHOLLAND WAS ARRESTED AND JAILED AT PARCHMAN FARM IN MISSISSIPPI AS A CIVIL RIGHTS PROTESTER. THE STUDENT AT ONE OF MISSISSIPPI'S HISTORICALLY BLACK UNIVERSITIES MADE HEADLINES AS ONE OF ONLY A HANDFUL OF WHITE, FEMALE ACTIVISTS TO TRULY SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER. ACUMEN SPOKE WITH MULHOLLAND IN 2013 ABOUT HER COURAGE AND CONVICTION TO BRING ABOUT SOCIAL AND RACIAL EQUITY. IN HER OWN WORDS... JOAN MULHOLLAND
[PHOTO BY SHANTELLA SHERMAN FOR ACUMEN MAGAZINE ]
I grew up in the South (Virginia) and realized that we were a bunch of hypocrites. In church, we quoted the Bible verses like, “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, My brethren, you have done it unto Me,’ and in school, we would recite the Declaration of Independence and earn gold stars for proper recitation. We knew these documents by heart, but we did not follow their precepts.
At 19, I entered Duke University at the behest of my mother, because it was a safely segregated institution but arrived in time to witness mass sit-ins and protests outside restaurants and general stores. I was arrested twice as a freshman at Duke, and we had the school administration on our case. I left school rather than get expelled. I decided that if school integration was real it worked in both directions, so I applied to an historically Black institution outside Jackson, Miss., and was accepted. Jackson was the center of civil rights activity and in short order after taking part in a protest, I was arrested and fined $200. Rather than post bail, I was sent to Parchman Farm. Now, Parchman Farm was at the top of the list of worst prisons in the country—right up there with Angola in Louisiana. It was the stuff of legends.
We were cut off from all means of communication and psychologically, it was bad for women. To make us fearful, the warden also emptied out death row and put us there. I was right next to the gas chamber. I joined the Freedom Riders because, for me, it was a chance to force the South to be true to itself and what it claimed as its core. We knew that the worse that could happen was death. When you reconcile that, there was nothing left to do but make it good.
The moment I stepped out of the patty wagon at Parchman Farm Prison and the officer reached out to take my hand and help me down -- I was this sweet, young thing — and against everything that he may have believed in with regard to white women being involved in helping Blacks gain equal rights, he went to do what he had been taught to do, which was to help me. I felt there was hope. His instincts were in the right place. He immediately tried to withdraw his hand but helped me anyway. After all, there was a certain level of comfort in knowing that these (white) men were my relatives and had the ability to change based on my actions.