Black History Month: How Hezekiah Watkins became one of the youngest Freedom Riders

Published: Feb. 27, 2019 at 1:07 AM CST
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JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - Most of the Freedom Riders of the 1960′s civil rights movement were college age and older.

But there was one activist who wasn’t even old enough to drive at the time when he got involved with a push... literally.

3 On Your Side spotlights Hezekiah Watkins and the Freedom Riders as we continue to celebrate Black History Month.

It’s the summer of the early 1960′s and the civil rights movement is hotter than the Mississippi weather.

Hundreds of college students from across the nation board buses, south bound; determined to bring justice and end segregated travel. Hezekiah Watkins lived near the bus station in downtown Jackson. He said he and his friend were curious.

They wanted a peek inside to see these so-called Freedom Riders. Watkins took that peek.

“And he pushed me inside. And once he pushed me inside, he ran. I’m inside. I try to run out, but the police officer refused to let me move,” said Watkins.

And things only go worse for the then 13-year-old, when the officer asked for his name and place of birth.

Watkins said, “I gave him my name and I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and that’s what landed me up in Parchman prison. Because when I told him I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he said ‘we got another one over here.’”

You heard right. Thirteen years old, in Parchman prison.

Hezekiah Watkins said, “I was not put in a cell with other Freedom Riders. I was put in a cell with common criminals. Two individuals that was there for murder who had been tried, had been convicted and sentenced, and their sentence was death.”

He continued, "And I was in a situation whereas they told me they was gonna make a girl out of me. "

“Here I am thinking, I’m 13 years of age. The only thing I want to do is see my mother and I recall crying every night and every day,” he said.

Watkins said he spent 5-and-a half days in the Parchman cell before higher ups realized they had a 13-year-old in Parchman Penitentiary. He wasn’t even allowed to talk about it once he was released.

Hezekiah Watkins said, “13-year-old being put in Parchman. That had to have been a traumatic, terrifying experience. It was. It’s lingered on right now today.”

Watkins went on to become a Freedom Rider - arrested more than 100 times.

Asked if he had any regrets, Hezekiah Watkins said, “None. None whatsoever. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it maybe a little different based on the individuals I met along the way. I would’ve taken the time to get a picture with them to hold it and to share it with my grand kids today.”

These days, you will find Hezekiah Watkins in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. His mug shot is prominently displayed with the other Freedom Riders and he is a walking and talking history book. He says the question he’s most asked? “You’re still alive?”

Hezekiah Watkins said, “It doesn’t offend me. As a matter fact, it makes me feel good to still be here to tell the story, because there’s a lot of Freedom Riders on this wall and on the wall back there who’s story would never be told and no one can tell your story better than you.”

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