Born near the Lincoln County, Mississippi, town of Summit on 29 July 1941, Hollis Watkins, the youngest of John and Lena Watkins’s twelve children, grew up on a farm near the border between Lincoln and Pike Counties. He graduated from the Lincoln County Training School in 1960 and the following year met Bob Moses, who taught him techniques for registering voters.
Watkins participated in the first sit-in in McComb in August 1961, joining Curtis Hayes at Woolworth’s. Hayes and Watkins were arrested for breach of the peace and sentenced to thirty days in jail. After his release, Watkins enrolled at Tougaloo College and became an organizer and field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), working in numerous communities throughout the state. He became one of the first Mississippians to attend SNCC’s Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Watkins then began canvassing neighborhoods and participating in the Pike County nonviolent movement in McComb. There, he was jailed along with Moses, Chuck McDew, and others for marching to protest Brenda Travis’s expulsion from Burglund High School and the murder of Herbert Lee. After being released, Watkins left school at Tougaloo, and he and Hayes went to Hattiesburg to start a voter registration campaign.
In Hattiesburg, Watkins worked with Vernon Dahmer, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and helped establish the Forrest County Voters League. Watkins subsequently left Hattiesburg to establish freedom schools in the Delta. In Greenwood, Watkins taught citizenship classes and was again arrested for disturbing the peace; he was convicted and served part of his sentence at Parchman Prison. In 1965 he was elected to SNCC’s executive committee, and he became one of the most ardent supporters of SNCC’s strategy of developing indigenous leadership in Mississippi’s black communities. Among movement activists, he earned a reputation for being a “song leader” in jail and at mass meetings.
After his work with SNCC, Watkins remained politically active in Mississippi, working to win the redrawing of state legislative district boundaries and helping to develop the Algebra Project in the Delta. He worked with Mississippi Action for Progress and on Jesse Jackson’s campaign in the presidential primary of 1988. Watkins founded and serves as president of Southern Echo, which works to develop leaders and empower local residents throughout the South in support of the needs and interests of the African American community. He is also a founder and serves as chair of Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, which seeks to preserve the movement’s history. In addition, Watkins serves on the boards of the Highlander Research and Education Center and the Southern Sustainable Agricultural Working Group. In 2011 he received a Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award from Jackson State University, and in 2015 he received an honorary doctorate from Tougaloo College. In 2016 Watkins and C. Leigh McInnis released a memoir, Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man.
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement website, www.mscivilrightsveterans.com
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2002)