July 29, 1941 |
Lincoln County, Mississippi
Hollis Watkins is an activist born in Lincoln County, Mississippi who became part of the civil rights movement in the state during the 1960s. He became a member and organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1961, was a county organizer for 1964's "Freedom Summer", and assisted the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to unseat the regular Mississippi delegation from their chairs at the 1964 Democratic Party national convention in Atlantic City. He founded Southern Echo, a group that gives support to other grass-roots organizations in Mississippi. He also is a founder of the Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.
Watkins was born in July 29, 1941, in Lincoln County, Mississippi near the town of Summit. He is the youngest and twelfth child of sharecroppers John and Lena Watkins. His family purchased a farm about 1949, via a loan program started under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Watkins graduated from the segregated Lincoln County Training School in 1960.
During his youth Watkins attended National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) youth meetings led by Medgar Evers. In 1961 Watkins met Robert Parris Moses, more commony known as Bob Moses, who was organizing in Mississippi for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Watkins joined SNCC, and began canvassing potential voters around McComb, Mississippi in Amite County. He participated in McComb’s first sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter to achieve integration, for which he was jailed for 34 days. During his time in jail, he was threatened on several occasions, including once being shown a noose and told that he would be hung that night. Afterward he took part in a walk-out at McComb’s colored high school, which resulted in his being sentenced to 39 more days in jail. Watkins' activism also had a personal price. Many of his extended family ostracized him and would not recognize him in public for fear of losing their jobs; the White Citizens Council and other groups conducted economic boycotts against activist blacks, getting them fired, evicted from rental properties, and refusing loans and credit.
Vernon Dahmer, president of the Forrest County, Mississippi NAACP asked SNCC for help with voter registration, and Watkins moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to help with that project. Watkins worked half days at Dahmer's sawmill to pay his way, and spent the rest of the time organizing voter registration projects. He was rebuffed from efforts to meet at Hattiesburg's Baptist churches, but had success at the St. James Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. His first effort led to six people volunteering to try and register, including Victoria Gray Adams. At the request of Amzie Moore, he next went to Holmes County, Mississippi, where he began to canvass potential voters.
Supplied with equipment by CBS News, Watkins went to the clerk of court’s office with a hidden camera and microphone in order to film a typical encounter with voter registration officer Theron Lynd. CBS News was covering the movement. The footage of Lynd, and some of Watkins was aired as a "CBS Reports" program called "Mississippi and the Fifteenth Amendment." It has since been re-released on DVD as "Mississippi and the Black Vote."
Watkins was with Hartman Turnbow and others when Turnbow tried to register to vote at the Holmes County Courthouse. That night there was a firebomb attack on Turnbow’s home. Turnbow was later accused by the sheriff of setting fire to his own house, and he, Watkins and others SNCC workers were arrested. It was during one of his jail terms that Watkins became noted as a leader and singer of "freedom songs." 
Watkins went on to do movement work in Greenwood, Mississippi and other locations, working with Sam Block, Willie Peacock, Annell Ponder, John Ball and others. In addition to voter registration projects, Watkins taught voter education and basic literacy classes. In the early 1960s Watkins first attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which trained grassroots organizers. Later he served as a member of the board. That relationship continues today. He was in Washington D.C. at the time of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but did not participate in the march. Instead, he, Bob Moses, and Curtis Hayes picketed the Department of Justice. While in Washington, Watkins met and talked with Malcolm X, leader of the Nation of Islam.
Watkins strongly believed in the power of local activism and control, which was the major reason for his opposition to 1964’s 'Summer Project' also known as Freedom Summer. He thought that bringing in outsiders would disrupt the growth of the grassroots programs that were already in place, and that after the volunteers left, it would be harder to get the local movements moving again. Once the project was agreed upon, however, Watkins did his best to make it succeed. He and other SNCC members trained participants at Miami University of Ohio. After blocking efforts by Stokely Carmichael to appoint a new arrival over him, he served as director of the Holmes County efforts. There he oversaw 23 summer volunteers. For their safety he insisted they follow a set of strict rules, including no drinking, no dating locals, and no arguments with local segregationists. Perhaps because of these rules, Holmes County was relatively free of incident that summer.
Watkins was one of many people spied upon by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a tax-supported agency ostensibly formed to support the state image. Its staff and informers investigated civil rights workers and created files on them for government use, as well as passing material to local White Citizens Councils for reprisals against activists. Watkins’ name appears in the files 63 times. Some of the reports refer to him as a communist, although he had little idea what that even meant at the time. In 1990, the state government made these papers accessible to public viewing.
Watkins traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey for the 1964 Democratic Party national convention in support of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; it attempted to unseat the regular Mississippi Democratic Party (which was white dominated and maintained disenfranchisement of blacks) as the true representatives of state residents. He was present when Fannie Lou Hamer gave her testimony to the credentials committee, and later when Hamer argued with Martin Luther King over whether the MFDP should accept the compromise of the two seats at the convention offered by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. His efforts on behalf of the party led Victoria Gray to announce her candidacy for the U.S. Senate from Mississippi under the MFDP banner.
Recent work and honors
In 1988, Watkins returned to the Democratic Party National Convention, this time as a delegate for Jesse Jackson. Beginning in 1989 Watkins joined, and now serves as President of Southern Echo, a group dedicated to providing assistance to civil rights and education-reform groups throughout the south. He is also among the founders of the Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, which has worked to educate people about the movement and celebrate its work.l
- In 2011 Watkins was honored by Jackson State University with a Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award.
- On February 27, 2014, the Acting Mayor, Charles H. Tillman, and the City of Jackson Council honored Watkins with a resolution in City Hall chambers for his work on commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of Freedom Summer.
- Zinn, Howard. SNCC, the New Abolitionists. 1964. Reissued, 2002, South End Press. Page 76.
- Forman, James. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1997. (Originally McMillan, 1972. Page 228. 9780295976594
- Watkins, Hollis. Oral History, University of Southern Mississippi Library Digital Collection. Recorded Oct 23, 29, 30, 1996.
- Hampton, Henry, Steve Fayer and Sarah Flynn. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the civil rights movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. New York: Bantom, 1990. 9780553057348>
- Adickes, Sandra E. Legacy of a Freedom School. New York, Palgrave, 2005. 9781403979353 Page 14.
- Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65.
- Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission files Accessed 14 Jan 2012
- Rosenthal, Andrew. "Changing Times for Black Democrats," New York Times," 14 July 1988.
- Southern Echo Accessed 5 Dec, 2011.
- Hamer Happenings, Fall 2011. Accessed 14 Jan 2012.
- Wikimedia Commons. retrieved 27 February 2014 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LumumbaWatkinsTillmanBW.jpg