Hollis Watkins, who was jailed multiple times for challenging segregation in Mississippi, dies at 82

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FILE - Hollis Watkins, national chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary conference, speaks at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, June 25, 2014. Watkins was a longtime civil rights activist who was 82 when he died Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, at his home in Clinton, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

JACKSON, Miss. – Hollis Watkins, who started challenging segregation and racial oppression in his native Mississippi when he was a teenager and toiled alongside civil rights icons including Medgar Evers and Bob Moses, has died. He was 82.

Watkins — who also sometimes went by Hollis Watkins Muhammad — died Wednesday at his home in the Jackson suburb of Clinton, Mississippi, according to the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, a group for which he was chairman.

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“I’m just extremely heartbroken over his passing," Cynthia Goodloe Palmer, the group's executive director, said Friday. “He was a tremendous friend, leader, co-worker and someone that everyone looked up to, someone who sacrificed tremendously.”

Michael Morris, director of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, said Watkins “dedicated his entire life to improving the lives of Black Mississippians.”

Watkins was born July 29, 1941 — the youngest of 12 children whose parents were sharecroppers in the rural Chisholm Mission community in southwest Mississippi's Lincoln County. Watkins said he was 4 years old when he started carrying water to his parents and siblings as they worked in the fields. As he got older, he helped pick cotton, uproot corn and dig up stumps.

He would walk to school through the woods, even as white children rode buses to their segregated and better-equipped school. Questioning inequality that shaped his family's life, Watkins joined a youth chapter of the NAACP.

He said he was in California in 1961 when he saw news coverage of integrated buses full of Freedom Riders arriving in Mississippi, and he knew he wanted to return home and meet them to try to find answers to questions that had been bothering him — why Black people were expected to step aside and avert their eyes while passing white people on sidewalks in Mississippi, for example.

"I was just on a quest to find the answers to why white people could get away with all of this, and we had to treat white people this way, and they could go here, and we couldn’t go there, and all of us are supposed to be treated equal," Watkins said in a 2010 interview with a crew from the University of North Carolina Greensboro for a series on “Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Watkins attended Tougaloo College, a historically Black school in Jackson that was a safe haven for civil rights workers.

In 1961, Watkins became one of the first Mississippi residents to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, after he met Moses, an SNCC coordinator, in McComb, Mississippi, and Moses showed him how to fill out a voter registration form.

Watkins also got to know Evers, leader of the Mississippi NAACP.

“Even though I was a SNCC staff person, Medgar and I had a close relationship. We worked together all across the state,” Watkins told The Associated Press in a 2013 interview.

Watkins organized Black voter registration drives in McComb and Pike County, near where he had grown up. He and another SNCC activist, Curtis Hayes, were arrested after they conducted a sit-in to try to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter in McComb, on Aug. 26, 1961.

Watkins was arrested and jailed multiple times, including in 1962, when he and other activists were sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman after registering Black people to vote in Greenwood.

Also in 1962, Watkins and Hayes went to south Mississippi's Forrest County at the invitation of local NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer to work on Black voter registration. Dahmer was killed in January 1966 when Ku Klux Klansmen firebombed his family's home.

In June 1963, Watkins was attending a mass meeting in Greenwood, Mississippi, when news came that Evers had been assassinated in Jackson.

“We turned that mass meeting into a prayer service, and then we turned the prayer service into a motivational piece to get people, more people, to become registered to vote,” Watkins said in the 2013 AP interview.

“We realized that Medgar was gone, but we would not receive a defeat in Medgar having been assassinated,” he said. "And to prove we did not see it as a defeat, we decided and became more determined that we would get more people registered to vote in the name of Medgar.”

In 1964, Watkins was a county organizer for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, as college students traveled from other parts of the U.S. to work on Black voter registration. He was also part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an integrated group that challenged the seating of the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party delegation at the party's 1964 national convention in Atlantic City.

Watkins in 1989 founded Southern Echo, a group that worked in community organizing, politics, education and agriculture.

“This is an idea that came to fruition as a result of me realizing that I was not getting any younger, and people from all across the state and even other states had began to call on me to work with them and provide them certain kinds of training and technical assistance,” Watkins said in the interview with UNC Greensboro.

Watkins received the Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award from Jackson State University in 2011 and an honorary doctorate from Tougaloo College in 2015.

Watkins was a frequent presence at the two Mississippi history museums after they opened in downtown Jackson in 2017, speaking to school groups and teaching freedom songs that he and others sang as they challenged inequality in the Deep South.

In 2013, before the 50th anniversary of Evers’ assassination, Watkins said he was proud that Mississippi had large numbers of Black elected officials and Black attorneys.

“But even though we’re proud of that, we know that racism still exists here in Mississippi,” he told the AP. “So we still have to continue to work today.”

Watkins said he would continue doing civil rights work to honor Evers’ memory.

“That’s how I see it, and that’s one of the motivations that keep me going today,” Watkins said. “And I intend to continue to go as long as I am blessed with life and strength.”

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Former AP journalist Stacey Plaisance contributed to this report.