Joan Mulholland, the Southern white woman who challenged KKK

Joan Mulholland mugshot

“I was 19 when I joined the Nag – Nonviolent action group”, Joan Mulholland, in an interview to the Washington Post, reminisces about her activism with the Freedom Riders, those who ran through America with buses to fight racial segregation and other violations of civil rights. It was 1960.

Usually only leaders of revolutions are those who “make History”, for better or worse. We remind of Lenin, Garibaldi, Bolivar, Che Guevara, and not of the base of their movements, it would require too much empty space in the brain. Same way, we recall for Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson, or Rosa Parks who was just a nice lady refusing to give her seat and not a political figure.

So, a Joan Mulholland can remain unknown to the majority, but is also and especially for people like her that those fights succeeded. First of all because she was white and from the South, an area which was generally more conservative than the average (euphemism). Joan was the first Caucasoid to enter the female sorority Delta Sigma Theta, prerogative for blacks. “I applied to Negro Colleges, Tougaloo decided to accept white students too and I made it in”, she says.

Her mother was a firm supporter of segregation, as she came from rural Georgia, her father wasn’t, but he thought that had to be changed from inside, so he didn’t approve Joan dangerous activism. While the Freedom Riders took a lot of risks, the members of the Congress of Racial Equality warned her and the others to get psychologically prepared to violent raids. The Ku Klux Klan wasn’t appreciating those movements, most of all when the whites were taking part in it, but even the police was against their illegal ways.

Joan Mulholland during a demonstration rally in Jackson, Mississippi

They are both arrive promptly. First the beating, then the detention: Mississippi, death row, with the killers. The testimonies describe humiliations and degrading conditions, no need to go any more accurate in details. But that doesn’t stop them, it pushes Joan Mulholland and her fellows to go further. More sit-ins, more demonstrations, in restaurants, universities, more inciting black people to register on electoral rolls. And more hate from the KKK. Three activists got killed in Neshoba, Mississippi, Joan still doesn’t give an inch. Who is on the right side, wholeheartedly, can’t change his or her mind.

The Presbyterian Church taught Joan the equality in the eyes of God, even if the minister used to tell the devoted to keep those ideas for themselves, not to risk their lives. In 1960 arrived for Joan Mulholland the awareness that it was time to do something. She was in Duke University, the protests of the black students arrived in North Carolina too, where debates and sit-ins were frequently organized.

An older – but not in the spirit – Joan Mulholland

“As a Southern religious I felt that we should have done what we could to make the South better and to rid ourselves from this evil. 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 Southern, because white segregationists saw other white Southerns taking a stand for change”.

That’s why beside Martin and Malcolm there’s room for this woman whose definition was perfectly given by the namesake documentary, An ordinary hero. Joan Mulholland won multiple recognition, one from the former president Barack Obama too, because he chose the hard way when she could have comfortably stayed at home and none could had blamed her for that. But she did all that for a very simple reason, that “nobody is free until everybody is free”. Simple, not easy.


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