It has been 54 years since Joan Trumpauer Mulholland sat in at a segregated lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi, but she still remembers the feeling of her soul leaving her body at the eruption of an angry white mob.
“It became an out-of-body experience,” Mulholland said during a presentation at the Naples United Church of Christ on Thursday evening. “I felt like a shell of myself.”
Mulholland was part of a group of four racially mixed students from historically black Tougaloo College participating in sit-ins and demonstrations to protest segregation.
At that counter, food was poured over Mulholland’s head. She and her fellow protesters were heckled. Some were tossed from their chairs and beaten. The police stood outside, almost laughing, she said.
Mulholland’s presentation Thursday was organized by the NAACP of Collier County and Showing Up For Social Justice of Southwest Florida.
She spoke and showed clips from “An Ordinary Hero,” a documentary about her involvement in the civil rights movement. She also was honored with the local NAACP’s Humanitarian Award for her contribution to civil rights.
The documentary highlights some of the most violent and pivotal moments of the civil rights movement in the 1960s — freedom rides and sit-ins, the brutal use of fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, the March on Washington and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
“That was not a good year, ’63,” Mulholland said. “And then Kennedy was shot.”
By the time she was 19, Mulholland had participated in dozens of sit-ins, Freedom Rides and protests. She was arrested in 1961 and housed on death row in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary.
“She’s so small, yet so strong, and she did what she did in the face of so much hatred,” said Vincent Keeys, president of the local NAACP. “It’s inspirational to hear her story but also difficult, because I realize there’s still so much work to be done.”
As a white Southern woman, Mulholland wasn’t supposed to join the fight for racial equality. Her family disowned her for her decision to do so. She endured jail time, violence and hatred because she believed what she was taught in Sunday school as a girl and felt it was right to fight against racism and inequity.
“I learned in church to treat others how you want to be treated, to love your neighbors,” Mulholland said. “I thought we were a bunch of hypocrites because we weren’t doing that.”
Her mother, on the other hand, maintained her feelings on segregation until the day she died.
As a crusader for racial justice during a tumultuous time in American history, Mulholland offered advice to those who asked her how to take on a cause effectively:
Speak up. Form and join as many coalitions as you can. Make a plan for what you want to accomplish and work toward it. Support each other.
“In every movement, there are people out on the front lines marching and protesting, and there are people behind the scenes having your back — cooking, making signs, giving rides, filling out paperwork,” Mulholland said in an interview with the Daily News. “Both roles are equally important. You need both.”
Mulholland was outraged by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, but she has been encouraged by resulting rallies for the rights of marginalized groups.
“I think this election and inauguration is reinvigorating the movement for change, so that’s good,” she told the Daily News.
Social justice organizations in Collier County have held a number of marches and protests since the presidential inauguration.
Ellen Hemrick, co-leader of Showing Up For Racial Justice of Southwest Florida, said she hopes more white people will get involved in the conversations about social justice taking place locally and nationally.
“You can’t ask the people being discriminated against to fix the problem,” Hemrick said. “We’re the problem.”