Va. woman’s fight tells story of ‘ordinary heroes’

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) - When filmmaker Loki Mulholland decided to make a documentary about his mother’s role in the civil rights movement, he tricked her into the project.

Originally, he planned to tell the stories of four civil rights activists in the ‘60s - including Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. He soon realized, however, that his mother’s experiences were far too rich to be limited to part of a documentary. So, he got right to work on his new idea.

“At that point, I never told her there (wasn’t anyone) else in the film . I didn’t want her to back out of it. I (thought I’d) just ask for forgiveness later,” Mulholland says.

It wasn’t until the cameras started rolling that Mulholland heard the full story of his mother’s participation in the movement, including dangerous run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan, multiple arrests and a famous photograph that’s used to teach school children about one of the most controversial times in our nation’s history.

“My mother never told me the stories. All I ever knew were the pictures,” Mulholland says.

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was born in 1941 and was raised in Arlington during the years of segregation. She says she was always aware of segregation, but didn’t realize the extent of its disparities until she was about 10 years old.

Trumpauer Mulholland was visiting relatives in rural Georgia when she dared her friend, Mary, to walk through the town’s black community - a highly audacious act for a young, white Southern girl.

“So, we left our bikes and went for a stroll and it was just so blatant, the difference. I mean, the white section was poor enough - we’re talking dirt roads and water from the (well) - but it was just so much worse in the black community, and the school is what really hit me,” says Trumpauer Mulholland, who still lives in Arlington.

“The black school was just an unpainted shack, for lack of a better word. A one-room schoolhouse up on stone piles . outdoor plumbing and what looked like a potbelly stove for heat . It just really hit me, right then, just how unequal things were.”

Back in northern Virginia, the conditions appeared to be better than rural Georgia, but segregation was still obvious. A wall by an Arlington hospital separated the neighborhoods and drivers often “locked the car doors” when traveling through certain neighborhoods off Lee Highway, Trumpauer Mulholland says.

When it was time for college, Trumpauer Mulholland went to Duke University. Contrary to her parents’ wishes, she invested her time in more than just schoolwork; she began participating in the segregated school’s sit-ins.

“I think my thinking was propelled in this direction by being sort of a literalist. We memorized Bible verses about how to treat each other and we had to memorize the Declaration of Independence back then, and we didn’t practice what we preached,” she says.

At Duke, Trumpauer Mulholland was one of two white women involved in the nonviolent protests - the other being her roommate. Other white women supported the effort, but because they were from the South, they felt they couldn’t fully participate.

“They couldn’t endanger their family that way, but they could slip us some money on the side,” Trumpauer Mulholland says.

In her first year of college, Trumpauer Mulholland was arrested twice. She remembers the first time clearly.

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