SOUTH SALT LAKE — During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the people fighting for racial equality for all came from various racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Among those who stood on the front lines of social justice was Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a white Freedom Rider from Arlington, Virginia, who chose to join the historic movement rather than stand idly by in the face of institutional inequity.
Mulholland is in Utah this week speaking to students of all ages about her experience in the movement walking alongside such icons as Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow Freedom Rider Hank Thomas, as well as the struggle for social justice that continues today.
Addressing students at Granite Park Junior High School in South Salt Lake, Mulholland said even though the nation has progressed in its efforts for equality, the fight has not been fully won.
"There is still work to be done," she said. "We've still got problems."
She said young people today are the "freedom fighters" of tomorrow. She told the students how her first experience with inequity began when she was 10 years old during a visit to her grandmother's house in Oconoee, Georgia.
On a dare, she and a friend walked into the "colored" part of town. It was there she observed abject poverty for the first time, seeing how black people lived in even more squalid conditions than the poorest white residents of the small rural hamlet.
The school was a one-room shack that paled in comparison to the gleaming modern brick school building that white children attended. From then on, she made a point to calling out unfair treatment and vowed to "do something about it."
At 19, her participation in lunch counter sit-in demonstrations marked the beginning of her lifelong involvement in the movement, she explained. She was arrested at age 20 in Jackson, Mississippi, as a member of the Freedom Riders in 1961.
She was kicked out of Duke University for her activism and eventually was involved in more than 50 sit-ins, the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery March. She became friends with Stokely Carmichael and Medgar Evers, as well as demonstrating with King and Thomas.
Today, she travels the country providing free resources to students about the importance of civil rights and standing up for their beliefs through the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation. She said the way to get young kids engaged is to get them interested in matters that affect people of their generation.
"Is somebody being bullied in school? Is there too much trash on the playground? Are kids being hassled on the streets for some reason?" she asked. "What are the problems they face and what can they do together about it?"
Mulholland said today's generation can learn from some of the strategies used during the movement, but they need to adjust their tactics to suit today's civil rights environment.
"Use (technology) to help solve the problems of today," she said. Once kids or someone they know gets to be the target of some form of injustice, she said, then they'll see the problem and work to fix it.
Eighth-grader Deeliya Rauer, 13, said hearing Mulholland's story was uplifting, but she knows there is still work to do to address the injustice that still persists.
"There are still many disrespects in the world and we have to continue to push through it and continue to help," she said. For now, she wants to identify social problems and do what she can to mitigate them.
"I'd like to be a part of the (solution) instead of just saying this is happening," Rauer said. "Everyone is a part of this community and we should just accept everyone."
A fellow Granite Park eighth-grade student, Anahy Sanchez, 14, said she appreciated hearing Mulholland's message of support for social justice and found her story inspiring.
"Equal rights are really important because I'm affected by them, and we're all still affected by them," she said. "If I can change something, I will try."Comment on this story
She said young people like herself have the opportunity to improve their community just like the Freedom Riders, they just have to seize the opportunity when it presents itself.
"We're so lucky, even if we don't think about it. We're so lucky that we get to grow up in a world where we are treated equally," Sanchez said. "We need to make sure that we take those opportunities and make something out of them because (we) have opportunities that a lot of people (before us) didn't."