Joan Trumpauer Mulholland began protesting for civil rights in the early 1960s and was part of many of the important civil rights protests of the decade. Her son Loki has become an Emmy-award winning director and in our next conversation, we’ll talk about why he made a film about his mother’s activism.
Loki: By the time my mom was 19 years old, she had been involved in about three dozen sit ins and protests when she joined the Freedom Rides and was put on death row. That’s the beginning of her story. She’s kind of the Forrest Gump of civil rights. She was everywhere and knew everyone, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Dr. King, Jackie Robinson. Actually, I learned more about my mom after I made the film than I did during making the film, because there’s new stuff that comes out all the time.
GT: Yes, so you’re talking about “An Ordinary Hero.”
Loki: “An Ordinary Hero.” Yes. I’m sorry. Yeah. So, the documentary that I did about my mother called, “An Ordinary Hero,” which is about her life in the student movement of the civil rights movement. When she was 10 years old, she went to Georgia where her grandmother lived, the southern grandmother. Every summer they would go there. When she was about 10 years old, on a dare, her and her friend go to the black quarters. Of course, they had a different name for it then. She saw the discrepancy in the living situations, but in particular, the schoolhouse. So, the schoolhouse is like classic, straight out of Hollywood, black one room schoolhouse for black children, with no glass in the windows, no paint on the walls. [There was] a potbelly stove in the middle, for heat, an outhouse. This is in stark contrast to the brand-new post-World War II brick building, that was in this little town for the white students. Now that building is still the nicest building in Oconee, Georgia. It’s now just a rest home for, probably for all those students, [who were there] 70 years ago. So, she sees this, and she says, “This is wrong, I’ve got to do something about it.” She said she’s actually said that it rattled her soul, because of what she was taught in church. My mom’s Presbyterian, [she was taught] that we do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “If you’ve done it unto the least of these, my brethren, you’ve done it unto me.” She says all of that good King James stuff. She really took that to heart.
Loki: She had to memorize the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, and she really believed it. “The values of what our country espouses,” she said, “We’re just not living up to them.” So, when she sees this for herself, for the first time, for real–we can see things all the time, but it’s not–when it finally registers, I guess, is the point. [She] kind of connected the dots. All of a sudden, it became, “Wow, this is wrong.”
Loki: That’s the 1963 Woolworth’s lunch counter, Jackson, Mississippi, where they poured the stuff on her head, and there’s Ann Moody and John Salter and a mob of two or three hundred people behind them. I can probably count on my hands the number of times my mom has been–that’s when I thought we were going to die. I found out later, she was, actually, on the Klan’s most wanted list, and was actually hunted down for execution. But, because they failed, they ended up killing a couple of her friends, instead.
GT: Oh, wow. That’s terrible.
Loki: My mom’s pretty cool. I get people asked me all the time, “Well, would you sit at the lunch counters?” I’m like, “Well, I don’t have to. My mother already did. But I have to do what I can do, because doing nothing is not an option.”
GT: So these films are kind of your lunch counter.
Loki: Films are my lunch counter, it’s my way of continuing that process of healing and educating and moving the work forward to help us actually form that more perfect union, to go back to the principles of who we are as a nation, of who we want to be as a nation. We’ve gotten better. We honestly have, I mean, good grief. We don’t have slavery anymore. We don’t have Jim Crow anymore. I mean, we actually had a black president, we have a black Vice President. That’s progress. It doesn’t mean that there’s still not that foundation of racism that we still need to work on, that each of us need to work on. There’s something to be said, when President Oaks is saying Black Lives Matter, when the First Presidency is very open about race and racism in America, and within the Church, and how we should be living as members of the Church, as well. There’s, I mean, you can either take the buffet approach to the gospel and pick what you like, and so forth and ignore the rest. or say that–the argument I’ve always heard is, “Well, they’re just trying to be with the times.” I’m like, “Okay, when has the First Presidency ever tried to be with the times?”
What do you think of Loki’s activism?
The LDS Church has had a rough history when it comes to race, so it may surprise you to find out that one of its members has made several award-winning documentaries, including an Emmy dealing with racism. We’ll talk about these award-winning films from director Loki Mulholland.
Loki: “An Ordinary Hero,” which is about my mom, and the student movement. Then, there’s “The Uncomfortable Truth,” which is about the history of institutional racism in America, how we got to where we are. That’s actually a genealogy journey, as well, very fascinating. I get messages from people asking me about–all sorts of questions about that film still.
GT: Well, and your family had owned slaves, right?
Loki: We owned people. Yeah. We actually helped start the whole thing, quite frankly. We arrived in Jamestown in 1610. We started–we were one of the original planner elites. We served in the House of Burgesses. We were there. We also were one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. So, we’re real Americans.
Loki: I say that a little cheekily, sacrilegiously, but the fact of the matter is, I get people who tried to argue that I’m not a real American, blah, blah, blah. I’m like, “Hey, wait, hold on. Hold on one second, now. We fought in every war. Right? We did all of it, we did everything. We were there for all of it, the good and the bad.
Loki: “Black, White, & Us” is about racism through the lens of transracial adoptions in Utah. So, these were white families who believe that racism doesn’t exist anymore, and then they adopt these black children. It’s like this eye-opening experience for them. Because now suddenly, their neighbors, their own family members, everyone else is coming out of the woodworks saying all sorts of stuff to them. But, they actually have to confront racism, because these are their children. They can no longer sit there and go, “Yeah, but maybe that’s not what the police meant when they pulled you over, and maybe this and maybe that. Maybe that’s not what your teacher said.” And it’s like, “No, I mean, this is actually for real.” It’s a fascinating exploration.
Loki: Another film is “After Selma,” which is about voter suppression since the 1965 Civil Rights Act. So, Selma, Alabama, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that has iconic images. People are like, “Oh, well, everyone can vote. All as well.” Well, no, not all is well. There’s still a lot going on. So, that’s that film. Then, obviously, the “End of Slavery,” and “The Evers.” This is about the family of Medgar Evers, and his assassination. He was shot in the back by Byron de la Beckwith while standing in his driveway. We interview his wife and his kids and so forth. We have to understand that these historical places, actually, these people are still alive in a lot of cases when it comes to civil rights movement. These are real stories, these are real people, real lives, real impact. So, when you go and see their house where he was killed, it’s not just merely, “This is an historical place.” It’s like, “No people lived here. They laughed. They loved. They cried. It’s making history real.”
Have you watched any of these films?
Rick B is absolutely correct. Racism is one of the twin relics of barbarism that must be abolished in every form.
While Joan was demonstrating for civil rights, I was in France and Belgium trying to convert Europeans who were not interested in religion, including their own religion. I was trying to defend the Church’s institutional racism. The Belgians, because of their experience in the Congo, were a rich source for mercenaries working in Africa. One “retired” mercenary, alleged that what was happening in America was worse than what he paid to do as a soldier. I wrote that off as hyperbole. I was blind to the intensity of the civil rights movement. In retrospect, my time would have been better spent participating with the demonstrators in the South than on my Mormon mission.
I served my military time in Wilmington, NC. Hardly the Deep South, but still a state with racial issues. They integrated my unit while I was serving. Hopefully, I helped facilitate that process. I think we all got along well. But still, I could have done more to assist with improving civil rights issues in the community.
Hopefully, my experience in Wilmington, and my regrets about my mission, have encouraged me to better understand racial issues.
Unfortunately, the Church is now going through the same discriminatory issues with the LGBTQ+ community that they had (and continue to have) with the Black community.
Thanks for sharing this—I definitely am interested in these films.
I’m currently reading John Meacham’s book about John Lewis. It is stunning and sobering. Sounds like Loki’s mom and Lewis traveled same/similar paths.
We still have a long way to go.. We first need to keep open minds, be willing—and not afraid—to listen and learn. That goes for adults as well as children.