Hollis Watkins founds Southern Echo
Rev. Marion Myles of Walthall County, Mississippi thought the Movement was dead. But that was before Rev. Myles met Hollis Watkins and the other organizers of Southern Echo, who taught her how “to get down to the nitty-gritty of the community and make it work.” After attending one of their workshops, she began to organize her community around getting Black teachers and administrators in their public school system, a prevalent demand from the early sixties. Myles realized the Movement was far from dead–“it’s alive in a different form.”
Southern Echo was founded in 1989 by Hollis Watkins, one of the first young Mississippians to join SNCC’s staff. Raised on a small farm in Chisholm Mission in Liberty County, Watkins volunteered to help SNCC’s Bob Moses when he began organizing a voter registration drive in nearby McComb in 1961. He quickly became one of the first two native Mississippians to join SNCC’s staff as a field secretary (Curtis Hayes was the other) working on COFO projects in Hattiesburg, Greenwood, and Holmes County.
Like many SNCC field workers, Watkins was dedicated to developing leadership among ordinary men and women at the local level. He believed that building sustainable grassroots movements was the key to making structural changes in Mississippi. “The feeling I’ve had all along,” remembered Watkins, was “that people wanted to be able to do things for themselves and they wanted to be able to make decisions for themselves about themselves.” Watkins felt that his job as an organizer was to give the people “the necessary tools” to deal with issues–like the vote, public education, and farm subsidies–that impacted their daily lives.
Watkins stayed in Mississippi, even as many other SNCC workers pulled out of the state after the 1964 Summer Project. “I stayed here in Mississippi, my home, and continued to try and organize people … to keep the Movement alive.” Using lessons he learned in the 1960s, Watkins formed Southern Echo in 1989 with Mike Sayer, a white lawyer and one-time SNCC worker, and Leroy Johnson, from Holmes County who was just five when Watkins worked there in 1963. Watkins described Southern Echo as “a leadership development, education, and training institute” designed to support and unite local “black-based, black-led” organizations. “We wanted to build a small, lean, mean Echo,” explained Mike Sayer, “which would help to develop independent grassroots community organizations.”
Southern Echo began working in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1990s. Thirty years after the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi had 890 Black elected officials, more than any other state. But in the Delta, many of the problems the Movement faced persistently remained. Unemployment steadily rose, and by the 1990s, it hovered between 16-18 percent–twice what it was in 1960. According to former SNCC activist Mike Miller, Black elected officials “could do little to improve the quality of life for a vast majority of the Black people of their cities.” They were “left to preside over the division of an ever-shrinking pie.” Other problems, like housing, health care, toxic waste, and education, continue to plague Black communities in the region.
The organizers in Southern Echo wanted to create local movements to address these problems. They realized that “fighting racism now means developing ways to dismantle the domination and control by the white community of the black community,” which “requires empowering the black community so that is owns the knowledge and information to impact policy and hold the political, economic, educational systems accountable.”
For instance, in the early nineties, Southern Echo spearheaded a redistricting movement to combat the gerrymandering of voting districts that splintered the Black vote. Twenty new Black state legislators were elected in 1992 thanks to the efforts of “hundreds of grassroots citizens” who worked in the Mississippi Redistricting Coalition. As a whole, these new elected representatives were much more accountable to the people’s needs and demands than their predecessors.
“In the 1980s it seemed there was nobody us little folk had to turn to,” explained Mamie Cotton, one of seven staff members for Southern Echo (and whose husband, MacArthur Cotton, worked for SNCC in the early sixties). “When I found what they were doing in Southern Echo, trying to help communities help themselves, I can’t explain how I felt — it was like I’d received my first million!” Southern Echo has helped revive grassroots organizing in Mississippi. Like COFO in the early sixties, Echo continues to pull together local activist groups in an attempt to make radical changes at the local and regional levels.
Bell Gale Chevigny, “Still It’s a Fight for Power,” The Nation, August 22, 1994, 196-203.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Mike Miller, “Mississippi Musings: Freedom Summer Revisited,” Social Policy (Fall 1994), 46-58.
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of the Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1995).
Mara Casey Tieken and Mark R. Warren, “A Movement’s Legacy: Southern Echo and the Continued Struggle for Racial Justice in the Delta,” Sociological Focus (October 22, 2015), 84-101.
Hollis Watkins with C. Liegh McInnis, Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man (Clinton, Mississippi: Sankofa Southern Publishing, 2016).
Interview with Hollis Watkins by Joseph Sinsheimer, February 13-14, 1985, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University.
Interview with Hollis Watkins by John Rachal, October 23 and 20, 1995, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi.