Witness to Freedom Riders challenges listeners
Published 11:00 am Monday, February 10, 2014
Civil rights worker Hezekiah Watkins gave the congregation of Jackson Street M.B. Church a brief history of his experiences with the Civil Rights Movement, then issued a challenge.
“I challenge each of you — not just the young folks — each person here to set out and do something positive within yourself, within your community, within your church, within any organization you are with,” Watkins said. “Do something out of the ordinary to say, ‘I did it.’”
Watkins’ exposure to the Civil Rights Movement came in 1961, when at the age of 13 he was arrested in a Jackson bus station while trying to get a closer look at the Freedom Riders, a group of young people crossing the nation in buses to test whether states were abiding by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation at bus and train stations and airports.
He had watched their trek through the south on television, adding he was perplexed by their actions.
“I said to myself, “What crazy fools would let someone beat them? What kind of fool would let someone spat on them?’ All of these things that were happening to the Freedom Riders, I could not understand,” he said.
He said his mother, pastor and teachers told him and other young blacks not to get involved with the riders, but when a group came to Jackson, he and a friend went to a meeting at a Masonic temple to see them.
“They looked like me, they dressed like me, just neater, they talked like me.”
When Watkins walked in to the Greyhound bus station in Jackson the next day to see what was happening in the building, “the police officer said, ‘get over there, boy, sit there and don’t move.’”
Mistaken for a freedom rider, he was placed in a van with others, taken to the state penitentiary at Parchman, and placed on death row. He was later released on an order by then-Gov. Ross Barnett after authorities learned he was 13.
Watkins continued his activism in the decades since his arrest and remained a prominent figure in Jackson, working with the Medical Mall and owning Corner Food Market and Deli.
He said his journey into the Civil Rights Movement began soon after his arrest when the Rev. James Bevill, a civil rights activist, opened his eyes to the unfairness of the segregation around him.
One day, he said, Bevill took him on a ride through town, showing him the separate water fountains marked “white” and “colored,” cafes and restaurants where blacks had to go behind buildings to get meals, and the requirement that blacks sit in the rear of city buses.
“Rev. Bevill showed me and began to tell me the difference between me and the white man, which was no difference other than the color of our skin,” he said.
When Bevill was allowed to speak at Watkins’ church, he said, his mother changed her mind about letting her son participate in the Civil Rights Movement.
Watkins discussed his and other people’s efforts to raise money and recruit other young blacks in Mississippi to get involved and affect change.
“That’s how change began to come about,” he said, adding, “(but) we’re still struggling to this day.”
“Fifty-three years ago, I had no idea that what I did would be as significant as it is today,” he said.
He called on young people to continue working for change.
“I don’t think there’s a young Martin Luther King out there today, but there’s a lot of young Hezekiah Watkinses out there, one who can make a small change in life,” he said. “One who can do something.
“I am so proud to stand here and let you know what I did 53 years ago,” he said. “I have children, and four who will say to me right now, ‘there’s no way I could have done what you did.’ I’m quite sure that there are a lot of you out there who would say, ‘there’s no way.’”
Recalling the beatings he and others received during the push for civil rights, Watkins said he suffers from migraine headaches.
“There’s only one thing I can say,” he said, “‘Thank God.’ There’s a lot of civil rights workers who were killed that we don’t know about. There are some who died of old age. I’m thankful I’m still here.”