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Woman behind 'An Ordinary Hero' inspires students across the state

Published: Saturday, Sept. 14 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Mug shot of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission Records collection in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Photo provided by KBYU Eleven

Just a few months ago, proud Southerner Joan Trumpauer Mulholland returned to her alma mater, Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., a historically all-black school.

Mulholland and her son, Lehi resident and filmmaker Loki Mulholland, were on location filming a documentary titled "An Ordinary Hero," which features the life and heroism of one ordinary woman who risked everything to stand up for what she believed in: equality.

Now, Joan and Loki are traveling throughout Utah, sharing the story of one woman's journey of courage.

Recently, the Mulhollands attended a Sept. 10 screening and reception of their February-release documentary at Brigham Young University. There was a 30-minute screening of the film, followed by a question-and-answer panel with Joan and Loki.

Diena Simmons, station manager for KBYU-TV, said there were several reasons this film came to BYU.

"It's a very moving film. It told a piece of the civil rights story that a lot of us hadn't heard. And it was made by a local filmmaker."

Simmons said the station, which will air "An Ordinary Hero" on Sept. 15 at 9 p.m. and again on Sept. 23 at 8 p.m., likes to encourage the art and storytelling of all local filmmakers.

"(Loki) made a beautiful film about something that is universally important. Something that's just as important as it was 50 years ago."

And it was with an air of reverence that a nearly full house viewed the inspiring events that defined Joan's early life.

The year was 1960, and the civil rights movement was generating steam. But for 19-year-old Joan, the decision to join the fight for equal rights was made years before.

As a 10-year-old girl in Sunday School, Joan memorized Bible verses that taught her a golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Another factor was an internalization of the Declaration of Independence, which Joan was required to memorize in school.

"'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,'" she quoted. "You take that literally. As a Christian or as an American, you are an absolute hypocrite if you are empowering segregation."

Joan said this realization came to her in grade school. That, combined with a desire as a Southerner to make her beloved South the best it could be, Joan decided to give her all to make a change.

"I'll join the group, because it really takes a group to make a change," she said.

While attending Duke University in Durham, N.C., Joan became involved in early sit-in protests. She later dropped out of Duke to dedicate her time more fully to the movement.

After participating in the first Freedom Ride in 1961, Joan joined her friends in Mississippi and continued the Freedom Rides. The group was later arrested, landing Joan two months in prison.

Joan later enrolled at Tougaloo College and became the first white woman accepted at an all-black college.

During the infamous sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in 1963, she and other activists endured the taunting of the crowd, which swelled in intensity and began dumping ice cream and other condiments onto the protesters.

Joan recalls in the documentary that she didn't think she and her friends would make it out of that demonstration alive. Yet, she remained strong.

"I was not terrified," Joan said. "I might have been cautious; I might have been super-aware of my surroundings. But if you give way to fear, if you let fear move you, you destroy your ability to do what you need to do in the situation. The worst thing they could do was kill you, and we believed there was something better to come."

Joan remained an active supporter of the civil rights movement until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

When she is in her hometown of Washington, D.C., Joan visits Arlington National Cemetery and the grave of fellow civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was the first field officer of the NAACP. She also makes other occasional visits — like when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.

Joan explained in the film that the Ku Klux Klan had a list of the people most dangerous to the civil rights cause. Once a dangerous person was killed, their face was crossed out, she said.

"Medgar's face was X-ed out, but mine never was," Joan said in the documentary.

While this film has inspired countless viewers, perhaps no one has been more affected by its story than Joan's son, who wrote and directed the film.

"It's pretty cool when your mom has a mug shot," Loki said. "She was on the Klan's most wanted list. She was dangerous. That's cool."

But it's the example that Joan set that has left the greatest impression on Loki.

"I have two daughters. The example of this woman — a young lady who chose to follow her heart and not take the route of Miley Cyrus — we need those examples."

In the end, both mother and son agree, it's all about making a stand — no matter who you are.

"Most importantly, (this film) shows that ordinary people can do something. That you don't need a civil rights movement to make things happen, you just need the courage of your conviction," Loki told the Deseret News after the screening. "You just need to say, 'It's going to be me. I'm going to do something. That's where it starts.'"

Joan said it's important to understand that real people can make a difference — not just icons like Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

"Now us old folks are getting a little weak in the knees and maybe in the brain, so it's time for you young folks to step forward and carry it on," Joan told the students in attendance at the panel.

The final comment of the panel was from a mother and her young daughter. The mother thanked Joan for her courage and her example.

In response, Joan looked at the girl.

"Now you've got to go out and make a difference in the world. OK? Promise?"

She promised.

Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com or on Twitter: emmiliewhitlock

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