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Joan Mullholland: A Trip to Medgar’s Grave

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Freedom Rider

This is the seventh in a series of posts by Freedom Riders in response to Barack Obama’s victory (see the other entries here.)

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland grew up in Arlington and Fairfax, VA. In 1961 she was living in Arlington and working on Capitol Hill, active with the Nonviolent Action Group protesting segregation in Washington, northern Virginia and Maryland.

After the Freedom Rides she transferred to Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, graduating in 1964. She was active in the movement while in school, working alongside Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, as well as many others. Evers was murdered in Jackson in 1963.

In 1964 she returned to Arlington, where she has lived since. She worked for the Smithsonian, and in the Department of Justice on a program helping communities resolve racial issues. From 1980 until her retirement in 2007, she taught in the Arlington public schools.

Election Night at last. I was too road weary from a 24+ hour marathon journey home from Labrador to Arlington, VA, to go anywhere and watch the returns with people. Instead, wearing my Obama T-shirt, I half listened to the early returns while going through six weeks’ worth of mail. And hoped I could stay awake until there was a winner. Then came a call from my friend Jodie in Makkovik, Labrador. She’d finally gotten the kids down, her husband was off on a two-week shift in the nickel mine in Voiseys Bay, and she wanted to share the evening with someone who’d understand — like me.

So, connected by the phone, in our matching Obama shirts, tuned to different networks, we watched the returns together. We compared projections, discussed the intricacies of the American electoral processses, and considered the world-wide implications of what was happening. Finally, with reports that Obama had hit the magic number, there were scenes of world-wide celebrations that made the Millenium look like a warm-up rally. Jodie was having chills from the excitement. My sister called, screaming so uncharacteristically that at first I didn’t recognize her voice.

But I was in a somber mood, and not just from exhaustion. My mind was on all it had taken for us, as a nation, to “come this far.” I was remembering people, especially friends killed in the struggle, who had not lived to see this day. It had taken so many giving so much.

I told Jodie I was going to take my Obama button over to Medgar Evers’ grave in Arlington Cemetery, where he lies just down the hill from Thurgood Marshall and the Kennedys. The cemetery is less than three miles from my house. (His grave is easy enough to find: turn right at the main gate, first path to the right and down a few steps. It’s in the first group of graves on the right and usually small stones and other tokens are atop the tombstone.)

A couple of days later I went. Yes, Medgar, it was not all in vain. You’d hardly believe how much has been accomplished. There’s much to be done yet, many hearts and minds to be touched still, but things you could only dream of have happened. There is HOPE, and CHANGE is in the air. Thanks, Medgar, for doing and giving so much to help make America true to itself.

I lingered awhile at his grave. Then I moved on to the graves around his — men from many states, all equal in death. Nearby was a section of World War I veterans, men lucky enough not to be resting in Flanders Fields. It was getting on toward dusk, time to leave — the cemetery and the past — and step into the present. For me, the trip to Medgar’s grave was like a bridge from what was to what can be. Now I’m looking to the future, feeling that my country is rejoining the circle of nations. CHANGE (the positive kind) is in the air once again.

Dancing in the Rain

Tom Armstrong, Freedom Rider

This is the sixth in a series of posts by Freedom Riders in response to Barack Obama’s victory (see the other entries here.)

Thomas Armstrong III was born in Silver Creek, MS, in 1941. He joined the movement as a sophomore at Tougaloo College in Jackson, working on voter registration and other projects. After the Freedom Rides he continued to work around the state on voter registration and also participated in efforts to integrate Sunday services at white churches. In 1964 he attempted to integrate Millsaps, a private Methodist college in Jackson, but the class he registered for was canceled.

He moved to Chicago and in 1966 began working as a contract specialist with the U.S. Postal Service, managing trucking services. Now retired, he lives in Naperville, IL.

I arrived at my assigned polling station at 5 AM on November 4. My group of ten election judges opened the polls for voting promptly at 6 AM. As the first vote was caste I wanted to laugh, I wanted to cry. I sat in awe. This is it. We are on our way.

As voters poured in they wore tremendous smiles. It was like they were projecting an unwritten message: “Yes we can.” Seventy-eight percent of the registered voters in the precinct where I worked did vote. Breaking speeding records while delivering the votes to the Dupage County Illinois Board of Elections I could hardly wait. Precious items were locked in the trunk of my car — election ballots.

Jesus poured out his spirit on that Tuesday. Through that spirit, I could see the many prophets with smiles on their faces: Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Andy Goodman, Barbara Jordan, Nat Turner, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Shirley Chisholm, James Farmer and others.

It was a historic day in America. My heart goes out to the prophets of my life: my departed parents, and all my family members and friends. I so much wish to share with my close civil-rights movement friends, those who walked with me through the fires of hatred and the shadows of death — Dorie Ladner Churnet, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, MacAuthur Cotton, Betty Poole Marsh, Mary Harrison Lee, Hollis Watkins, Jimmie Travis, Edwin King and others — the precious projections of love, hope and peace. More than ever we are bound together as never before. We must make that bond work for this nation and the world.

Barack Obama has made history. He stands on the shoulders of many others. We now must again stand with him. We must support his Presidency because his Presidency belongs to us, we the people. America will come together as one nation, under God.

Yes we all now share a huge responsibility. We have the responsibility of making this country a better place. We must strive for peace. Now is not the time to sit idly by. The people, all of us, have spoken. Let’s improve our relationships with each other. Let’s move forward with new and positive ideas. Let’s make this country even greater. “Yes we can.”

There is an old saying, author unknown: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.” During the 1960s we didn’t wait for the storms of segregation to pass and we performed our dance well.

On the Side of the Angels

William Leons, Freedom Rider

This is the fifth in a series of posts by Freedom Riders in response to Barack Obama’s victory (see the other entries here.)

William Leons was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1935, and grew up there. His parents were both involved in the Resistance during World War II, and both were arrested and sent to the camps, his father in 1942 (to Mauthausen) and his mother in 1943 (to Vught). Only his mother survived. Together they immigrated to United States in 1949, living in Hoboken, NJ.

In 1961, Leons was a graduate student at UCLA when he joined the Rides. Since 1975 he has taught anthropology at the University of Toldeo, in Ohio.

I doubt any of the men and women active in the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960’s thought then that this day would ever come. Since those days much has changed — legislation fostering greater access for many to the ballot box, education and employment. Though the changes were too few and too slow, as we look back no one can say that there has not been improvements in the lives of millions.

That much still needs to be done goes almost without saying. Look at the high levels of high-school drop outs, mortality rates, unemployment rates and the cost of higher education, itself a silent discrimination based on race and social class. Not one state-supported university ranks in the top ten (Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Chicago) and these remain important stepping stones for success in the academic world and professions.

A heavy toll has been paid by those who suffered in silence and those who were active participants in the struggle — shriveled lives for many and death on the part of the movements martyrs, whose names we all know and many quietly recalled on the glorious day of November 4, 2008. Little girls and young men and women and beloved leaders who died for the cause, who never should have died for what was their birthright, to be free men and women in this land founded upon freedom.

My wife is a county social worker and she had to ask a colleague, an African-American man, on November 5, why so many white women in their office were wearing black. He answered that they were mourning Obama’s victory. I see hope in the young people, many of whom may be said to be color-blind. My students (largely white) with rare exceptions voted for Obama. Such voters may have made the difference between winning and losing Ohio. I see black and white students often walking together and chatting with each other and studying together, all quite different from 20, 30 or 40 years ago and promises well for the future.

In the weeks before November 4, I began to believe that Obama was going to be the next president and was afraid that the poll numbers might be wrong or shenanigans by the opposition might rob us all. When late that evening I saw the results on my TV I realized we were participants in a great historical event and I became giddy with happiness. I am not a flag waiver, and like Michelle Obama don’t often feel proud of my country, but that day I did feel proud and put out the flag and flew it for several days. It won’t fly again until July 4th, 2009, the one day I always fly the flag.

This victory is sweet and we all have a right to be proud because it is a long overdue promise that has been fulfilled. Now let us hope and fight for all the other problems that exist be eradicated in the years to come. Change is always slow but we are on the side of the angels. Our dreams will be fulfilled and we will be a beacon of hope once again for people everywhere.

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