Joan Trumpauer Mulholland has a suggestion for fellow white people wondering what they can do to dismantle white supremacy: “Bloom where you’re planted.”
“People say, ‘Oh I wish I could go somewhere and do something.’ Well, you can do something right at home," she said. “Even if it’s no more than speaking up a little bit when someone says something you know is wrong. If you see a problem in your own place, do something."
For 60 years, Mulholland has been speaking up against racism and white supremacy. In an iconic 1963 photo, she sits with fellow protesters John Salter and Ann Moody at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Miss. They are surrounded by a phalanx of smirking white men who douse them with water, vinegar, sugar, mustard, and ketchup.
“They dumped all that sugar on my head as if I wasn’t sweet enough already,” she joked when I recently spoke to her.
After participating in the Freedom Rides in Mississippi in 1961, Mulholland was arrested and spent two months in the state’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary. Despite years of disagreement with her own mother, whom Mulholland’s son, Loki, described as "a segregationist until the day she died,” Mulholland never stopped fighting against systemic racism.
”If it’s, say, a Muslim woman being hassled for wearing a hijab, walk with her, befriend her,” she said. "When you see racism or discrimination of any sort, speak up.”
White people must trade their comfort and privilege for justice and equality. This nation’s wounded soul demands it, and there are no shortcuts. Crucial moments in history do not reward bystanders whose silence bellows their complicity.
“If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem," Toni Morrison famously said. "And my feeling is white people have a very, very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”
In this country, "Racism is a white person problem that we always ask African Americans to solve for us. African Americans obviously have to deal with the effects of racism, but racism is a white disease,” said Loki Mulholland, an award-winning filmmaker and founder of the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation, which seeks to end racism through education.
“I say to people: ‘Look. If white people created white supremacy, which we did, we should be at the forefront of dismantling it,'" he said. “It takes all voices, but white people shouldn’t be leaving it to everyone else to do our work for us — which is educating ourselves, talking about this, and listening to Black people.”
During his mother’s childhood in Virginia, segregation was law, and white people weren’t listening to Black people. While visiting relatives in rural Georgia, she and a friend, on a dare, ventured to the other side of town, colloquially known by a racist epithet. It was where Black people lived, and when residents saw these two little white girls, Mulholland remembered, they averted their eyes or slipped off into the closest doorway.
This was a few years before Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager, was murdered by two white men in Mississippi when a white woman falsely claimed Till flirted with her. Yet those Black people knew what could happen if those white girls made any accusations against them.
Still, what really struck Mulholland, then 10, was the grim condition of what was known as “the colored school.”
“It was a one-room shack, a pot-bellied stove for heat, no glass, no screen, just wooden shutters at the windows,” she recalled. "No grass, no playground equipment. The water was a hand pump that went into a bucket, and there was one outhouse.
“I took one look at this and knew it was so wrong,” Mulholland said. “At the other end of town was this big brand new brick building, a school for the white kids. And I knew this was not what we learned in Sunday school — treating people the way we wanted to be treated. I had resolved, though I couldn’t have explained it then, that if I had a chance to change things . . . I would do that.”
Now 78, this great-granddaughter of slave owners is still trying to foster racial progress.
While her knees keep her from marching in current protests against police violence and racism, Mulholland isn’t sitting this one out. She recently attended a Black Lives Matter event near her Virginia home, and talked to fellow protesters about parallels between what’s happening now and the movement she first joined as a college student.
That another generation is doing this work, she said, does not surprise her, “especially considering the leadership at the highest level in the country is promoting racism."
“It’s been around forever and it may take forever to get rid of it,” Mulholland said. “We all just have to keep chipping away nonviolently. I’ve been there, and I’m still going there.”