Over forty years ago, around 1981, I came to Mississippi to work on the campaign to free former Tchula, MS Mayor Eddie Carthan.
One of the first people I met was Hollis Watkins, who devoted his life in service to the people of Mississippi and the nation. All who knew him are both mourning his passing and celebrating his life. I wanted to share a few remembrances of this truly remarkable man who passed away at the age of 82 on September 20, which coincidentally was my 67th birthday. His impact on the state of Mississippi is everlasting.
Hollis was the essence of a freedom fighter. He had joined the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee as a teenager – risking his life, going to jail several times, in the fight for civil rights and voting rights. He was this remarkable combination of quiet resolve yet unquestioned courage and strength. He spoke softly, yet persuasively, with the confidence of a man who was crystal clear on his mission in life and totally dedicated to fulfilling it. In his demeanor, he reminded me of Nelson Mandela – and like Mandela in South Africa, it was obvious that no price was too high to pay for freedom.
Through Hollis, I was introduced to other stalwarts of the movement who are now also with our ancestors – unsung heroes like Owen Brooks, L.C. Dorsey, June Johnson, Willie Peacock, and of course Senator Henry Kirksey, whose litigation literally changed the political landscape in Mississippi, paving the way for many Black elected officials across the state. They included Jackson Advocate Publisher Charles Tisdale who used his paper to advocate for Black empowerment. Through Hollis, I met people like MacArthur Cotton, Charles McLaurin, Frank Figures, Bennie Thompson, and many others.
I originally intended to stay in Mississippi for just a few months. But after meeting Hollis and his fellow freedom fighters it was impossible to just get up and leave. Hollis graciously offered me a place to sleep at his house until I could find a job, get on my feet. After working with Mayor Carthan, Hollis and I soon heard that Rev. Jesse Jackson was planning to run for President. This was 1983. So, we just decided that since no one else was doing it, we should organize the campaign in Mississippi. We contacted the Jackson campaign in Chicago, and got the go ahead.
That led to months of intense work that was one of the most rewarding times in my life. Senator Kirksey, Bennie Thompson, the great Mississippi writer Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander, Attorney Johnnie Walls, and other notable Black leaders were all heavily involved. All of them know and respected Hollis Watkins and responded readily to our calls for help. We reprised the same campaign in 1988, and by that time Mississippi’s Black voters had continued the momentum from the first Jackson campaign and elected another young leader, Mike Espy, to Congress, making him the first African-American from Mississippi in Congress since Reconstruction.
The Espy victory was historic, and everyone was acutely aware that it flowed directly from the work that Hollis and others started as teenagers. Today, the seat is held by Congressman Bennie Thompson who last year demonstrated the impact of Mississippi bred leadership when he guided the Congressional committee that investigated the January 6, 2021 attack on the nation’s Capitol, instigated by former President Trump.
While Hollis will be remembered mostly for his work with SNCC and heroes like Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer, years later through him I learned about the ongoing fight for Black empowerment they were still waging in Mississippi. By then, for most people, the Civil Rights Movement was “over.” But for Hollis, the struggle had not ended; it just entered another chapter. Perhaps in America it never will end.
Being around Hollis and his friends one could not help but marvel at the fearlessness, the bravery, they exhibited forging change in the state Martin Luther King eloquently described as “sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression…” They exemplified the immense courage that was necessary for Black people to forge ahead, which the mass media seldom highlights, preferring to depict the struggle as one of victims, not champions. I was, and remain, in awe.
Brother Hollis has earned his rest. He has left an enduring legacy, a role model for young people to learn about and follow. He had an indelible impact on the state of Mississippi, and on my life. I will always treasure the years I spent in his immense presence.
Bowie, Md (former contributing editor for the Advocate)