ABOVE: Corey Ivory, Freedom Rider Joan Mulholland, Alexandria Green Jones and Freedom Rider Hezekiah Watkins
This past Friday, June, 21st, Booked Design Space and the African American Selfie Museum welcomed two of the legendary Freedom Riders of Mississippi to Houston to commemorate the Juneteenth holiday. Those two legendary Freedom Riders, Joan Mulholland and Hezekiah Watkins, held a book at the event for their respective books, Pushing Forward by Watkins and She Stood For Freedom by Mulholland.
In 1961, groups of Black and White civil rights activists, known as “Freedom Riders,” organized bus trips through the southern part of the United States to protest segregated bus terminals and other forms of segregation and discrimination in the South.
These Freedom Riders orchestrated a plan to use “Whites-only” restrooms, lunch counters, waiting rooms and bus stations in Alabama, South Carolina and other states in the South. As these activists participated in these “Freedom Rides,” they were regularly confronted by police officers, who arrested them, as well as a tremendous number of violent incidents and horrific acts from White protestors as they traveled along their routes.
The original group of 13 Freedom Riders, which consisted of seven Blacks and six Whites, left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus on May 4, 1961, with a plan to get to New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, of which the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools across the U.S. was unconstitutional.
The efforts of the Freedom Riders drew national and international attention. Their efforts were so effective that after months of Freedom Rides, the White House, under the leadership of John F. Kennedy, directed the Interstate Commerce Commission in the fall of 1961, to issue regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals.
Both, Mulholland and Watkins, spoke of their individual experiences as civil rights activists, even before taking up the title of “Freedom Riders.”
They also shared their courageous stories of perseverance and triumph over hate in the segregated south, while taking the time to autograph books for guests in attendance.
Mulholland and Watkins were both arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and sentenced to prison at Parchman Penitentiary for their activism.
Watkins, the youngest member of the Freedom Riders at the tender age of 13, was placed on death row and considered the youngest person to be imprisoned during the Freedom Riders.
Watkins recounted his past with the Freedom Riders as not a member, but as a fan looking to witness their acts for himself. Pushing Forward, a collaborative work between himself and collaborator and friend Andrea Ledwell, tells his story as a freedom rider in its entirety, from his humble beginnings as a fan, to being arrested over 100 times in the name of his activism.
His inspiration for writing the book came from reading articles and books that mentioned him in false contexts.
“I picked up a book one day,” Watkins said. “I was just skimming through it, and I came to the point in the book that introduced myself, and I thought: ‘Let me see what this person has written about me without my permission.’ The author spoke about marches that he claimed I had supposedly led in Selma, Alabama.”
After that, Watkins went on to work at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, where he met Freedom Rider author and autobiographer Andrea Ledwell, who subsequently went on to work on and eventually publish Pushing Forward.
During the signing, Watkins also gave his take on the current state of the Civil Rights movement, now compared to the age of the Freedom Riders, as well as advice to young activists looking to make changes themselves.
“What they have to do is just stand, because that road out there is not as rough as it once was,” said Watkins. “We, the Freedom Riders, have paved that road, and it’s easier to make steps on that road than it was back in my day. So they just have to set their mind out to do whatever it is they want to do towards making a change, because it’s obvious that the younger generations are going to have to be the ones to make this change.”
Mulholland, known not only as a Freedom Rider, but as the first non-person of color to join a historically Black sorority – Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., served a yearlong sentence at Parchman, and was widely known for taking part in sit-ins. Mulholland is also well known for being the first White person to integrate the historically Black Tougaloo College.
Mulholland recounted her time as a Freedom Rider as well, beginning within a civil rights group in D.C. alongside famous civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. She talked about the integral role they played in pushing the current Kennedy administration towards opening up the highways to people of color in light of the recent Boynton v. Virginia case, which ruled that such segregation is in direct violation of the Interstate Commerce Act.
“Everything in regards to interstate travel had to be open to everybody equally, and we were trying to force the Kennedy’s as well as the Southern states to enforce the Supreme Court decision,” said Mulholland. “And by fall, they saw the light and the Kennedy’s ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to draw up the regulations and open everything up. It felt good to be a part of that, and it wasn’t bad hangin’ with Stokely either as well as those other guys.”
Her experience working with the Black community, as well as her time at Tougaloo College, was also a topic of conversation, stating that members of the community, particularly in the college often “weren’t too sure about her at first.” Mulholland claimed, however, that she “never got involved in anything that people in the movement did not invite her to,” which she believes to have made a significant difference. She continued her studies and as the people around her began to take notice, she was eventually invited to join Delta Sigma Theta.
Mulholland’s message to those looking to make a difference was to practice respecting each other as people, as well as getting together with friends who agree with you and forming alliances, stating that: “You don’t have to agree on everything, but the things you agree on are what you can work together on. Learn from what we did, but take advantage of the new ways in which you can make a difference, and get out there and do it.”
Mulholland went on to sign copies of her book, She Stood For Freedom, written by her son, Loki Mulholland, who was also present at the event.
The event was held at Booked Design Space and the African American Selfie Museum and hosted by co-owners Alexandria Green Jones and Corey Ivory.
“We were beyond honored to be able to bring these legends to Texas to celebrate Juneteenth,” said Ivory. “Mulholland and Watkins fought for freedom and unity in our society and nothing embodies the struggle of freedom more than Juneteenth in Texas.”
“To be able to unveil our new freedom rider exhibit during Juneteenth was a huge undertaking. We worked with local artist Christopher Gage and really studied the movement,” Green Jones stated. “To hear Mulholland and Watkins give us their stamp of approval was well worth the hard work and sleepless nights.”
Guests were then given exclusive access to the selfie museum, and were given a behind the scenes look at the unveiling of the new Freedom Rider exhibit. Attendees included the Houston Texans YMCA Active Older Adults, such as Toni McRoy, Daphane’ Sands, Steven Schuster, Ernestine Edwin, Kelly P. Hodges, Renee Steward, Cloria Thorton, Helen Leonard, Hester Steels and Nedra Standford. Guests were also treated to lite bites and cocktails by Branwar Wines, and a dramatic reading by Insight Productions.
The National Black Film Festival closed out the evening with a screening of the award-winning documentary “The Uncomfortable Truth” by filmmaker Lowkey Mulholland.
Event sponsors included Hodges Communications Group, LLC; Kay Davis and Associates; BB&T; Gogo Business Communications; Houston Forward Times; and the National Black Film Festival.