By Marshall Houston
Joan Mulholland and Bob Singleton have freed me over the past five days.
After listening to Joan speak for 20 of the most compelling minutes of my life on the bus ride to Greensboro, North Carolina, I caught her trailing at the back of the pack in the International Civil Rights Museum. During those 20 minutes on the bus, Joan became my hero and mentor, but she didn’t know it when I caught her and started talking in the museum.
We paused for an extra 45 seconds at the Mississippi books exhibit and immediately connected over our love for books. I am an avid collector of books on nearly every subject, and I normally can’t leave a bookstore empty handed. As Joan started discussing her books from the movement, a spark flickered in her eyes, and she said that her favorite books are the hidden treasures—ones you don’t go to the bookstore to find—and that when you find them, you seize the moment! I mumbled something in agreement, too overwhelmed with joy that my hero embraces these serendipitous moments just as much as I do. “Not everyone understands this. Soulmates,” she exclaims.
Speechless. I wrote her quote in my notebook as fast as possible; how else could I react to Joan Mulholland telling me that we were soulmates?
As we came to find out over lunch, Joan and I share more than our love of chance encounters with books; we share a Huguenot heritage by way of Charleston. I’m stunned again! This can’t be happening.
Joan marched me up to the front of the crowded banquet hall and, with a piercing shrill, quieted the room to tell everyone that we are family. FAMILY. With Joan Mulholland……
As a white male from Birmingham with a family history as deeply tied to Alabama as the thick, sticky humidity, I have not had guidance—philosophical guidance—on how to feel when I see gruesome pictures of lynchings where people with faces like mine beam with pride. Joan gave me this guidance.
Through her actions over 50 years ago, Joan, as my newly reconnected relative, gave me the confidence to escape any baggage or regret that I was holding onto, thinking that holding onto some notion of shame in Alabama made me like the Freedom Riders. This mindset of regret and shame is a sickness, and I can’t help but laugh at the mindset that I once held so dear.
After only five days on the ride, I have made a startling revelation; I have a white mother from Virginia in Joan Mulholland and a black father from Los Angeles in Bob Singleton that link me with hundreds, if not thousands, of brothers and sisters of every race and creed and heritage in the family of deep love! Together we celebrate the individuality of each relative’s heritage, and I have no more shame or regret.
As they say, blood is thicker than water, and I have new blood.