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Joan Trumpauer Mulholland recalls 1963 sit-in protest

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Despite the hardships she faced stemming from her commitment to social justice work throughout the height of the civil rights movement, activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, 80, says she wasn't afraid.

Fifty-nine years ago, Mulholland, who is white, was one of those photographed staging a sit-in to protest segregation in the south, an act in which she said was inspired by a higher power.

"I was just doing what the spirit said to do," Mulholland told CBS News' Elise Preston. "I knew when I had a chance to do something to make things fair, I would do it and that came with the sit-ins."

Throughout the civil rights movement, activists across the country staged sit-ins as non-violent protests attempting to integrate communities separated by Jim Crow Laws. The iconic photographs taken in Jackson, Mississippi at a Woolworth's lunch counter on May 28, 1963 showed the violence that protestors endured for sitting in the then-segregated space.

Civil rights activists 59 years ago photographed staging a sit-in to protest segregation at Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. 
Civil rights activists 59 years ago photographed staging a sit-in to protest segregation at Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi.

Mulholland recalls protesters that day in Mississippi being pulled down off their stools and being "kicked severely."

"It quickly became obvious that I would be safer sitting on the empty stool than I was in the crowd," she said.

By the age of 23, Mulholland had participated in more than 50 sit-ins and demonstrations, including the March on Washington, Selma to Montgomery March and the Meredith March, according to her website. She was also among the Freedom Riders — a group of demonstrators traveling throughout the South on interstate buses to challenge segregation.

For her participation with the Freedom Riders, Mulholland in 1961 was sentenced to two months in a maximum security prison for breach of peace.

"It was dirty and the food was pretty bad," she said of her time incarcerated. "Protein came from the insects."

When reflecting on her decades-old mugshot, the 80-year-old says "she wasn't bad looking."

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was sentenced to prison for breach of peace due to her participation as a Freedom Rider.
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was sentenced to prison for breach of peace due to her participation as a Freedom Rider.

As the great-granddaughter of slaveowners and the daughter of a segregationist, Mulholland said she was often referred to as a traitor to her race for her civil rights work. While growing up in Virginia, she said she was taught that Black people "were diseased," and was later disowned for challenging that narrative.

"Some girls in the dormitory quit speaking to me," Mulholland recalled due to her activism. "And others gave me some money to help support the movement."

But despite the obstacles Mulholland faced for her work, she says she's "happy [she] did it."

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