Legendary civil rights activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland is the subject of two new juvenile nonfiction selections. There is a picture book version, She Stood for Freedom: The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, written by her son Loki Mulholland and Angela Fairwell and illustrated by Charlotta Janssen, and a middle grade version of the same title, also written by Loki Mulholland with artwork by Charlotta Janssen.
In this interview, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland reflects on her experiences and the impact of encouraging young people in their struggle for equal rights. I received a complimentary copy of the middle grade and picture book versions of this book in preparation for this interview.
What compelled your family to share your experiences with the civil rights movement with young readers?
“My son, feeling my story is on the unique side, knew my story and he sees it as an educational tool. He thinks you don’t have to be a famous name to make a difference – just your everyday kid can make a difference.”
What gave you strength during this process? Is there a defining moment that particularly shaped your experience with the civil rights movement?
“My religious understanding – do unto others as they should do unto you. That in the end, you can kill the body and not the soul, that the body is a shell – and that the really important part is the essence of you, the soul. When I was 10 years old and down at my grandma’s and my friend Mary and I dared each other to go into the Black area and the poverty there was so much worse than in the dirt poor White area. And then I saw the school – no paint, I remember – one outhouse and one pump or well – and such a contrast, I just knew that this was wrong and when I had the chance, to do something. I wanted to make the South the best that it could be for all of its people.”
It is described in the picture book version that “your soul was rattled” when you saw the Black schoolhouse as a child. What did you understand about the importance of literacy and education as a young person?
“Not a whole lot, but I loved to read – the librarian thought that I had read every book in the library. My relatives were illiterate or semiliterate but that didn’t make them any less precious to me. Education was not universal and was not mandatory. School was not necessarily the standard thing.”
How did your family respond as you became involved in civil rights? How can libraries best support young people when their path differs from their family’s beliefs?
“The library is a safe haven. My family did not support me. Particularly the Georgia side – the law, the church, the superiority of Whites, everything they believed – most of us believe what we grew up with as normal.”
“My great grandmother was a suffragette and chained herself to the Iowa State Capital Building. I grew up on these stories and I think that was part of me – it was in the DNA. My father had no sympathy for segregation but was a good government bureaucrat who believed you change the law at the top. My dad didn’t like the tactics but worried most that his first-born was going to be killed.”
“What can librarians do besides offering safe refuge? Share stories about young people that went against society. There’s just lots of ways to overcome things that are going against you – and librarians helping kids find those books as well as lending an ear to what the kids have to say and really connecting with what the kids are saying and supporting them.”
At what age should young children learn these horrors of our country’s history? What is your response to those adults who believe children should be sheltered from this information?
“They’re subject to see the evening news on television. Right from the beginning they should have the idea of being fair to everybody and there’s bullying all over the place. Get a life. Get real. If the kid goes to school, they’re not being sheltered. And the earlier they start to be aware at the level they are able to understand it, the better off they will be. Nothing is wasted, they absorb it at the level that is appropriate for them and the overall context – but the more context, the better their understanding, and this is for any topic.”
What was the greatest challenge in candidly sharing your personal history with such a young audience?
“I didn’t have a challenge, my son did it. I think it’s very important that young folks get some ideas – inspiration. You see more issues than we did in the day and there’s more interconnectedness, and my generation’s job is to have your back. It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to bring social change so young folks have to find their allies, their immediate cause, and build coalitions, and if I can help to inspire them, it’s my job.”
Thank you to Joan Trumpauer Mulholland for sharing her story, her view on libraries, and her convictions in encouraging social change.