Hollis Watkins, Activist and Advisor, Honored by CRRJ

Nobody was gonna turn Hollis Watkins ’round. Not even his own father.

Watkins knew his father, a sharecropper from rural Mississippi, would dissuade him from participating in the town of McComb’s first sit-in at a  Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1961. Hiding the truth from his father, Watkins went to the diner with Curtis Hayes, his friend and fellow SNCC member. When two seats became available at the white-only counter, the teenagers sat down. Subsequently, they were arrested and spent 34 days in jail, where his reputation for singing and love of “freedom songs” was discovered.  

Last Wednesday, September 20 2023, Hollis Watkins, CRRJ advisor, voting rights activist and key figure in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, made his final march up to freedom land. He passed away at home, aged 82. 

Watkins was born in 1941 in Lincoln County, Mississippi, the youngest of twelve children to John and Lena Watkins. He spent much of his childhood helping his parents run their farm and molasses business. In 1960 he graduated from the segregated Lincoln County Training School, before studying political science and history at Tougaloo College.  

"With feet solidly planted in Mississippi, Hollis was truly a fierce voice for justice across the world."
(CRRJ logo)
Professor Margaret Burnham
CRRJ Director

Besides his voter registration advocacy, Watkins taught voter education and basic literacy classes. He was in Washington D.C. at the time of the 1963  March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom but did not participate. Instead, Watkins, along with Moses and  Hayes,  picketed the  Department of Justice. He also met and talked with  the Nation of Islam leader, Malcolm X. 

In 1964, Watkins attended the Democratic Party National Convention in support of the  Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which planned to unseat the regular, white-dominated, Mississippi Democratic Party. MFDP leaders believed their party could most accurately representatives Mississippi residents. Watkins’ campaigning for the party led  Victoria Gray to announce her candidacy for the U.S. Senate, under the MFDP banner.  

Watkins returned to the Democratic Party National Convention in 1988 as a delegate for  Jesse Jackson. The following year, he joined Southern Echo, a group dedicated to supporting civil rights and education-reform groups throughout the South, where he served as president until his death.

Watkins is also among the founders of the  Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, an organization that seeks to educate people about the Civil Rights Movement and celebrate its work. 

In 2011, Watkins received the  Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award from Jackson State University, and in 2014, the City of Jackson Council honored Watkins with a resolution for his work, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Summer.

Hollis Watkins (third right, back row) with Professor Burnham (front right) and Professor Nobles (front left), co-founder of CRRJ and the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, in Jackson Mississippi in 2012.
Hollis Watkins (third right, back) with Professor Burnham (front right) and Professor Nobles (front left), co-founder of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, in Jackson, MS. 2012. Photo courtesy of CRRJ.

The proud Mississippian, who believed in the power of grassroots activism, criticized SNCC and other organizations that relied on the support of “outsiders” from other states. Watkins believed that Mississippians had the strength and resolve to create social change for themselves. He was critical of many of the Freedom Summer initiatives, believing that a reliance on, often white, out-of-state allies slowed the growth of Mississippi’s own collective power. 

In her tribute to Watkins, CRRJ Director Professor Margaret Burnham wrote: 

“Hollis Watkins was a steadfast supporter of the work of CRRJ. He attended our founding meeting in 2007 and maintained close connections with the work in Mississippi over the years. With feet solidly planted in Mississippi, Hollis was truly a fierce voice for justice across the world.  We will miss his wise  and generous advice, counsel and support.”

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