The first time I saw Joan Trumpauer, her blond hair, tied in a bun at the back, was being doused with mustard and catsup by taunting white schoolboys as she sat on a stool at the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter, flanked by four Tougaloo College colleagues.
It was May 28, 1963. The youths had poured out of Jackson’s Central High a block away into the shopping expanse of Woolworth, one of a nationwide chain of what was called “five and dime” stores, on learning several blacks were staging a sit-in at the whites-only lunch counter.
What developed became an historic chapter in Mississippi’s civil rights struggle and, coincidentally, the first challenge by local blacks against segregated public food service. Unlike the voting rights demonstrations that had for more than a year become a common occurrence on Jackson’s Capitol Street – then the city’s main business center – the sit-in turned into ugly violence pitting dozens of hostile whites against a handful of passive blacks.
My comments on the brutal sit-in are not ex post facto. I was there as a reporter and witnessed close-up the terrible events that took place. Worst was when a former policeman knocked black Tougaloo student Memphis Norman off a stool and began kicking him in the face and head leaving pools of blood on the floor. White high- schoolers (and some adults) laughed and did nothing. Mayor Allen Thompson had ordered police not to enter the store. A detective, Jim Black, there to observe, finally stopped the kicking.
The Woolworth sit-in took place only two months before Medgar Evers, Mississippi’s pioneer civil rights advocate, was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson home.
“We Shall Not Be Moved,” wrote Michael O’Brien, an independent author from Fairfax, Virginia, who did amazingly detailed research over several years into all the actors who had some role in the overall story. My view is that the courage of the Woolworth sitters – to break down racial barriers – made Byron De La Beckwith advance his schedule to eliminate Evers as the primary figure to inspire the black community.
Back to Joan Trumpauer, the slightly built, white 21- year-old who was the most unlikely figure among the Tougaloo sitters. No neophyte in racial protests, she had been arrested in lunch counter sit-ins in her native Virginia and the North Carolina area.
I next saw Joan Trumpauer (now Mullholland) in July, 1997 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. I was being honored by a distinguished collection of the capital’s press corps. Mullholland was then teaching high school in Arlington, just outside D.C. She had seen a highly complimentary article about me in the Washington Post and wanted to join in honoring me.
It gave me great pleasure to ask her to stand up as a true hero, not I. Last week, Joan was back in Jackson to be feted as a 50-year graduate at Tougaloo, the first white graduate in its 160-year-old history.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.