Freedom Rider educates, inspires Athens students

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland has been disowned, hunted by the Ku Klux Klan and faced angry mobs and soldiers with guns. And in 1963, while participating in a sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in Jackson, Miss., she thought she was facing certain death.

 

These brushes with danger were the results of Mulholland’s efforts as a civil rights activist and Freedom Rider during the 1960s. And they illustrate, in part, the efforts of the 76-year-old activist as she fought against segregation in the American South as a young woman.

Now, Mulholland is working to preserve her legacy, and the legacy of thousands of others, while also inspiring the next generation of political activists by telling her story to students across the country.

One group of students who heard her message Thursday were the eighth-graders at Hilsman Middle School in Athens.

Mulholland shared with the students her firsthand accounts of the civil rights movement in an effort show them that they have the power to make change in the world.

“What we did in the sixties is still relevant, because we still have problems, and sometimes I feel like we’re going back — fast,” Mulholland said. “We need to remember what we did; those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The activist added that even though some of the same problems, like racism and separation, are still prevalent today, modern day activists have more tools at their disposal to fight back.

“Some of the techniques we used can still be relevant, but there are other ways to do things now. We have to modernize,” Mulholland said. “We have all these devices now that we can use. We don’t have to have pockets full of dimes to make phone calls — just whip out a cell phone.”

One of Mulholland’s lessons for the students was that even small movements can make a difference.

“It may be small when you start it, but it can combine with other currents of change and lead to something really big,” she told the Hilsman students. “The important thing is that you start it.”

The 13- and 14-year-olds are at the perfect time in their lives to start these small movements, Mulholland said.

“They aren’t that far from the age that we were when we were taking it to the lunch counter,” she said. “I think it’s important to plant the seeds. If they aren’t ready to use these lessons now, when the moment comes, they’ll remember what they learned.”

For 13-year-old Matthew Johnson, that seed has already been planted.

“One thing that stuck with me was her quote, ‘Whatever you decide to do, it will move forward,’ ” he said. “I’m going to keep that with me for the rest of my life.”

Hilsman Principal Utevia Tolbert hopes that all of her eighth-graders take Mulholland’s lessons to heart.

“Please, please, please, as you are finding your way in the world, take what you have learned today and apply it to your life,” she told her students. “Make a difference in our world, and more so, make a difference right here in Athens.”

For more information on Mulholland or the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation, visit thejtmfoundation.org.

 

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