July 29, 1941 – September 20, 2023
Raised in Chisholm Mission, Lincoln County, Mississippi
Mississippians drove the Mississippi Freedom Movement, and in 1961 Hollis Watkins, who grew up on a small farm in Chisholm Mission (a rural Lincoln County hamlet named for an AME Church), became one of the first young Mississippians to commit to full-time work with SNCC. In the late spring of that year, he was on the way to California to join his sister hoping to work and set aside money for his college tuition. But when word of Freedom Rides coming into Mississippi reached him, Watkins turned around and headed back home. He was 19-years-old.
Back in Chisholm Mission, Watkins sought news of the Movement, wondering how to become involved. On his family’s farm, without a radio or television, he heard almost nothing until a friend passed along a rumor: Dr. Martin Luther King would hold a meeting at the Masonic Temple in McComb that night. Excited, Watkins and a group of friends hurried to the Temple. Instead of Rev. King, SNCC organizer Bob Moses was there. “Are you Martin Luther King?” Watkins asked. “I’m [NAACP president] C.C. Bryant’s voter registration man,” Moses replied. He gave Watkins a voter registration form. After he easily filled it out, Moses told him that if they had been at the county courthouse and he had been old enough, Watkins would be a registered voter. Moses asked him to join the voter registration organizing effort in McComb, and the next day, Watkins began to canvas for voters.
Though Watkins had not been politically active in high school, he soon became a mentor and role model for McComb’s high-school-age activists. These young people had been inspired by SNCC freedom riders, now coming to town and helping start the Pike County Nonviolent Direct Action Committee. Watkins was elected president of the new organization. The Committee chose Woolworth’s as their first place for protest. Sure that his father would object and knowing he would have to obey, he told his father the night before the sit-in, expecting to be arrested, “I’m going into town tomorrow. I’ll stay the night with friends.”
Only Watkins and Curtis Hayes, his long-time friend and vice-president of the newly-formed nonviolent student group, sat-in at the Woolworth department store lunch counter that day – the first of this kind of direct action in McComb’s history. Although inexperienced, they sat down only when two seats opened to avoid being separated in the hostile situation. Police immediately confronted them and then arrested them.
In what would prove true over and over again in Mississippi and other parts of the South, the actions of young people changed the thinking of adults. That night, Watkin’s father traveled into town to speak at a mass meeting protesting the boys’ arrests. This approval gave Watkins comfort and courage while alone and abused in jail. His family continued to quietly support Watkin’s activism, resisting the white community’s pressure on Black parents to discipline or disown their activist children.
Watkins and Hayes continued organizing but now as SNCC field secretaries. That fall, they traveled to Hattiesburg to assist NAACP leader and farmer Vernon Dahmer in his voter registration efforts. This partnering of young people with an older generation eager to use youthful energy for social change came to characterize Mississippi’s Freedom Movement. Hattiesburg became one of SNCC’s most successful projects.
Hollis Watkins joined the organizing effort in Greenwood in 1962 and then initiated the Holmes County project. As an organizer, Watkins lived as sparsely as possible, always careful not take advantage of a community’s hospitality and to listen to voices at the grassroots. As a native Mississippian, he knew that a community’s first question would be “How long will you be here?” It stemmed from fear that outside leaders–even coming from another part of the state–would leave once violent reprisals began. But Watkins never left. He dedicated his life to human rights activism through SNCC and later Southern Echo, his grassroots community organization.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Cheryl Greenberg, ed., A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Our Voices: Song & Music, featuring Candie Carawan, Bettie Mae Fikes, Worth Long, Charles Neblett, and Hollis Watkins, SNCC Digital Gateway.
Interview with Hollis Watkins by John Rachal, October 23-30, 1996, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi.
Interview with Hollis Watkins by Joseph Sinsheimer, February 13-14, 1985, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University.