Moved to the Movement:
A Survey of an Oral History of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and the Civil Rights Movement
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Library of Congress performed an interview with Joan Trumpauer Mulholland for their Civil Rights History Project via the Southern Oral History Program on March 17th, 2013.[i] The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which did not open for another three years, was gathering data for the museum at the time of the interview of which Ms. Mulholland periodically states that she had loaned many of the documents still in her possession to the museum. The date of the interview is significant for two reasons: the conversation took place a half century after some of the events discussed and the meeting took place shortly after the United States’ re-election of its first African-American president, Barack Obama. The interview itself is significant because she was a teenager when she joined the movement, remained actively involved throughout the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement, and continued to discuss the events she participated afterward.
There are strengths and weaknesses directly related to the timeframe of the interview. Most notably, the fact that as time progresses, one’s memory of an event is no longer acutely accurate is a substantial weakness of oral histories. Moreover, a heavily discussed event can alter a person’s memory if there are different perspectives and opinions. Joan Trumpauer Mulholland has not stepped back from political action or shied away from interviews since the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the media exposed her to opinions of events she has participated in, as well as the stories of other participants.[ii] Throughout the interview, she is asked to chronologically move through her childhood and the Civil Rights Movement. If she does not recall information, she states why and the interviewer, Dr. John Dittmer, moves on.[iii] Additionally, Ms. Mulholland, donning an Obama 2012 St. Patrick’s Day shirt, makes statements throughout the interview that show cynicism of politics and political organizations, which she applied to a few memories of past events. Known mostly for her involvement in the May 28th, 1963 Woolworth’s Sit-In in Jackson, Mississippi, her recollection of the event appears to be quite clear, describing it as a mob of high schoolers against a few protestors, and then adding, “Now, the guys in sunglasses, as I understand it, were all FBI agents cleverly disguised.”[iv] Despite the criticism and timeframe issues, the source can answer many questions and provide a jumping point for further historical research on the involvement of youth in Civil Rights Movement.
This source discussed the differences between childhood in Virginia in comparison with Georgia before and throughout the Civil Rights Movement, particularly regarding the South versus the Deep South.[v] Additionally, Ms. Mulholland discussed her motivations for joining the movement and the differences in participating in various organizations and events, such as sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, which led to her arrest and situations where she thought she might be murdered.[vi] She offers names of people and organizations that can also result in further sources, such as the people sitting around her at the counter in the Woolworth’s sit-in, Anne Moody and John Salter.[vii] The majority of the interview, however, focused on Ms. Mulholland’s college years, which remains a gray area concerning when youth ends and adulthood begins.
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland’s oral history may be regarded as problematic due to her race, childhood, and class. Her parents were segregationists with government jobs and she attended and completed college.[viii] As a white and educated woman, despite her attendance at the historically black Tougaloo College, her experiences need to be compared to other sit-ins to determine whether or not her presence may have impacted the lack of violence. Otherwise, there may be a conflict from lack of acknowledgment on the levels of violence at sit-ins and the correlation to integrated protesting. However, due to the lack of speculation in the oral history and plethora of materials available, both on Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and youth involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, this source provides a small amount of insight on many factors of the movement such as motivation, experiences, political agendas, and counter-protests.
Hearing the stories of historical events from someone who was there can draw a listener in and make them understand a new perspective of an event that may otherwise feel irrelevant to current events and their impact on today’s youth. To public school students, the legendary figures of the Civil Rights Movement resisted legislation that a child of the twenty-first century would only experience through textbooks. The experiences of one Civil Rights Movement activist, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who participated in protests across state lines and throughout her youth and early adulthood, are well documented. With oral histories not only can history come to life, but the preservation of an event can become more authentic when addressed properly. Oral histories, while problematic and in need of critical analysis on a case-by-case basis, do provide a unique and valuable perspective of a historical event, but bias and misinformation, particularly over time, remain a reoccurring problem in this type of primary source.
[i] Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, “Civil Rights History Project Interview Completed by the Southern Oral History Program under Contract to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture and the Library of Congress, 2013,” interview by John Dittmer, Library of Congress, 2013, accessed February 19, 2017, https://www.loc.gov/item/2015669178/, 1. Note that the citations for the source analysis are from the transcript, which is available on the same page as the video of the interview.
[ii] Ibid., 62. This citation marks Joan Trumpauer Mulholland addressing a discrepancy in a book about her specifically. Throughout the interview she states when she heard or learned something after the event.
[iii] Ibid., 49. This is just one example of roughly twenty, but it is a strong example of how Dr. Dittmer handled Ms. Mulholland’s gaps in memory. Rather than pushing to fill in the gaps of her memory by priming her, he would ask questions that generalized or asked about other aspects of the event. In this scenario, she could not recall if a specific person was present at a picket line, so he asked if the picket line was integrated, which she could elaborate on.
[iv] Ibid., 50-53. Additionally, see Figure 1 for the heavily circulated image of Joan Trumpauer during this sit-in. She is in the center with her head facing away from the camera. This remains one of the most popular images of the Civil Rights Movement sit-ins and in the interview she discussed the counter-protestors being high school students.
[vi] Ibid., 62-65. This citation marks the point in the interview where she discusses the incident before Freedom Summer in which she feared for her life. This incident stands as more than a story for shocking purposes because there were recorded deaths of her friends as a result, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, as well as Andrew Goodman. The sit-ins are discussed consistently throughout the entire interview, as are her arrests.
Blackwell, Fred. “Jackson Mississippi Sit-In May 28, 1963.” Digital image. University of Mississippi. 2014. Accessed February 19, 2017. http://www.olemiss.edu/projects/sfa/farish-street-project/.
Civil Rights History Project, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, and John Dittmer. Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Oral History Interview Conducted by John Dittmer in Arlington, Virginia. Video. The Library of Congress. Accessed February 19, 2017. https://www.loc.gov/item/2015669178/.
Mulholland, Joan Trumpauer. “Civil Rights History Project Interview Completed by the Southern Oral History Program under Contract to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture and the Library of Congress, 2013.” Interview by John Dittmer. The Library of Congress. 2013. Accessed February 19, 2017. https://www.loc.gov/item/2015669178/.