A native of Mississippi, Hollis Watkins, was born in 1941 and grew up on a small farm in Chisholm Mission and became one of the first young Mississippians to commit to full-time work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Watkins also served as founder and president of the Pike County Nonviolent Direct Action Committee, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and a county organizer in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project.
Inspired by civil rights leader Bob Moses, Watkins began organizing local voter registration drives within the Pike County community. He organized one of the first sit-ins in McComb at a Woolworth’s lunch counter with fellow activist Curtis Hayes and was arrested and jailed multiple times for participating in various demonstrations.
Watkins was known for his use of freedom songs as an inspiration to encourage others to join the movement. He traveled across the state and worked on voter registration campaigns with other civil rights leaders such as Vernon Dahmer. Watkins was also involved in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“Hollis Watkins dedicated his entire life to improving the lives of Black Mississippians,” said Michael Morris, director of the Two Mississippi Museums. “He was heavily involved in the creation of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, lending his voice to the museum’s central gallery. Museum staff are disheartened to learn of his death, but his legacy continues to inspire us.”
In 1989, Watkins co-founded Southern Echo, a community organization which works to develop leaders and empower local residents in support of the welfare of African American communities throughout Mississippi. He also served as chair of the Veteran of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. Watkins was honored with a Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award from Jackson State University in 2011 and received an honorary doctorate from Tougaloo College in 2015.
Watkins died on September 20, 2023, at the age of 82.