Just shy of the 50th anniversary of the May 28, 1963 Jackson, Miss., Woolworth sit-in, author Michael O'Brien discussed his book We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth's Sit-in and the Movement It Inspired (University Press of Mississippi) with about 40 guests at the Sherwood Regional Library Tuesday evening.
O'Brien said it took 20 years of conducting interviews, doing research and finally getting the book published. Joan Trumpauer Mulholland spoke to the group about her experience in the sit-in and about the movement that followed in Jackson, Miss.
Mulholland grew up in Arlington and moved to the Annandale area when she was in high school. She said she took Sunday School lessons and learned about the Declaration of Independence. After doing so, she came to the conclusion that many people in the segregated south were not living up to what they were teaching.
"I thought as southerners we were hypocrites," she said. "When I got the chance, I decided to do something."
Mulholland became the first student to integrate a black school by attending Tougaloo College and was a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights Movement. Mulholland along with other students, social science instructor John Salter and members of the NAACP, planned multiple demonstrations in Jackson, Miss., and didn't expect this particular sit-in at Woolworth to be any different from the others.
"Mississippians would say that their blacks were fine with the way it was," O'Brien said during his discussion. "But at the sit-in, there were three black students, natives of Mississippi who were 21 and 22 years old, and they expected to be arrested immediately."
The students weren't served at the Woolworth counter, but the manager closed the counter to other customers. And silently, the students sat there, unmoved. White customers came into Woolworth, acting violently toward the students. Mulholland and Salter eventually took their places at the counter with other Tougaloo College students in support of the demonstration and integration. Mulholland was 22 at the time.
A demonstration that was expected to end swiftly with a few arrests lasted for three hours. As a result, the black community were galvanized into action and demonstrations, sit-ins and other protests were planned in the city for the next two weeks.
Although the 1963 sit-ins sparked a movement that resulted in weeks of protests and sit-ins in Jackson, Miss., Mulholland said they were quite behind considering in 1960 a similar sit-in occurred in Greensboro, N.C. But she and other students were determined to do their part.
"I was drawn to it from the Sunday school verses we had to memorize about do unto others and all that jazz. I took this seriously, and as a southerner I believed that we should be the best we could be for all of us."
Along with interviewing Mulholland for the book, O'Brien also references FBI records of the demonstration and interviewed the photographer Fred Blackwell who took the historically iconic photo in which Mulholland appears with other demonstrators at the Woolworth counter covered in condiments that had been thrown at them by white customers from the high schools.
O'Brien said, at the time of the demonstration, Blackwell was a rookie photographer for the Jackson Daily News and was friends with many of the white customers' older siblings.
When he interviewed Blackwell during the only full interview he has ever given, O'Brien said that day turned out to be the one event that changed Blackwell's mind and heart about segregation. Seeing and photographing white customers mistreat and assault the demonstrators because of the color of their skin or because of what they stood for, didn't seem right to him.
"He said to me, 'They were right, and we were wrong,'" O'Brien said.
O'Brien and Mulholland took questions about the sit-in and experience writing the book from the audience after their presentation. Copies of O'Brien's book were available for purchase during the discussion and is currently available on Amazon.
O'Brien and Mulholland also signed copies of the book after the discussion. Mulholland was also selling and signing copies of her son's documentary based on her experience called "An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland."
To see the iconic photo of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and other demonstrators sitting at the Woolworth counter, read more about O'Brien and his book and for more stories about the individuals involved in the movement, visit his blog.