Civil Rights Profile: Hezekiah Watkins

One can say Hezekiah Watkins' pursuit of Civil Rights has come full circle, and it all began when he was just a 13-year-old boy growing up in a quiet neighborhood in Jackson.

Watkins
Credit: Drew Dempsey/Tell Agency

"I was unaware of the racism, the bigotry inflicted on blacks during that time," Watkins said. "I was a kid who would watch TV every day, the cartoons and cowboy pictures."

That was until one day when he awoke from a nap to see The Birmingham Campaign marching across his screen, with protestors encountering brutality in their pursuit of Civil Rights.

"I saw a group of individuals. They were in Alabama at the time. I didn't know where they were. But I just saw them on the news. I was at a loss, and I didn't know what was happening. I saw individuals being beaten, kicked, spat on, watered down with hoses. I just looked at it, amazed. I'm thinking it's a continuation of a movie segment, but it was news that was happening."

"I began watching it every day. My friend who didn't have a TV, I told him about it, and he would come to my house and watch it along with me. And he was amazed," Watkins said.

He had never seen anything like it in his young life. He didn't know it at the time, but he was witnessing some of the movements of the Freedom Riders, groups of black and white activists who participated in "Freedom Rides" throughout the American South to protest segregated bus terminals.

After being met with hesitant responses from his mother and school teachers when asking about the Freedom Riders, he and his friend's curiosity grew. So much so that they concocted a plan to fake a stomach bug after church one day to sneak out and see the activists themselves as they traveled through downtown Jackson's Greyhound station.

"My mother came and checked on me before she left; she stuck her head back in the door and said, 'Boy, don't leave this house.' I said, 'Yes, ma'am.' After she left, my friend ran over."

"He said, 'let's go, let's go. Let's go.'"

The boys bicycled down to the bus station, only to find that the Freedom Riders had already been rounded up and arrested. They began playing on the sidewalk, running up and down, drinking out of "White's Only" water fountains, and embracing their newfound freedom.

However, their fun quickly ended when Watkins' friend jokingly pushed him into the doors of the Greyhound station and ran off. Before he could exit, a security officer caught up with him and asked for his name and birthplace.

"I gave him my name. I told him I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And when I said Milwaukee, he said out loud, 'I have another one over here!'"

Thinking that he was from up North like many of the other riders, he was quickly ushered away from the station and taken to the infamous Parchman Prison.

At just 13, he was Mississippi's youngest Freedom Rider to be arrested and put on death row. He endured "unthinkable" conditions for five days with no due process. "I try not to even think about it even now," Watkins said.

He was eventually released by then Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who ordered his discharge at the behest of late President John F. Kennedy.

From that moment forward, Watkins devoted much of his life to pursuing equality and Civil Rights, getting arrested more than 130 times, often with excessive force.

"I'm 74. As we speak, I would do it all over again right now. Except going into Parchman. I never ever, ever, ever want to go there."

Flash forward to today, and Watkins is a grandfatherly figure at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

As a museum docent, Civil Rights thought leader and speaker, and living part of history, one of his greatest enjoyments is getting to teach younger generations the importance of embracing the past to create a better future. Many of the children who listen are 13 years old themselves, some older, some younger.

"I want all of them to take advantage of the privilege they have today that we didn't have," Watkins said.

"That's what we've fought for. That's what a lot of them died for."

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Anne Marie Fowler

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Anne Marie Fowler