One of the youngest Freedom Riders reflects on the fight for justice

Published: Feb. 22, 2021 at 3:25 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - WLBT is celebrating black history month.

We hear from Hezekiah Watkins, Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider. He has spent his life fighting for justice and equality for all.

“Every jail I was in, every beating I have gotten, every lick that I got upside the head on the back or wherever was worth it.”

Sitting across from me is history. Hezekiah Watkins was 13-years-old when he was arrested along with the other Mississippi Freedom Riders. Watkins admits he is still haunted by the days he spent at the Parchman Penitentiary during a time of Jim Crow laws and racism was a way of life in the Deep South.

“It was a nightmare, and it still becomes a nightmare after 60 years. Sometimes I get choked up. Sometimes I don’t.”

But before we get into his story, let me take you back to the Time of Freedom Riders in the 1960′s. The Freedom Riders were both black and whites who volunteered and took bus trips from DC to the Deep South to test a Supreme Court Decision that declared segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus terminals, unconstitutional. They also brought attention to the lack of enforcement of the laws and worked to fight against segregation, but they were met with violence.

“I know they were out there and got beaten and spat on then housed down with fire hoses. I had a close friend that was like me that was very interested in what was happening, so we find out the Freedom Riders were going to be in Jackson, and we made sure we wanted to go and see them.”

A curious 13-year-old Watkins says he and his friend rode their bikes to the local Greyhound Bus Station.

As they approached the door, Watkins recalls his friend- as a joke- pushing him inside the building.  He says that’s when the problems started.

" Here I am in the Greyhound Bus Station that read “whites only,” and I was trying to get a view of what’s so fancy about the bus station that reads “whites only”. There was nothing different, so I chose to turn to walkout, and someone hit me on my shoulder, and it was a police officer.”

After a being questioned by police about his name and birthplace, Watkins- who was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin- told police that information, they then put him and handcuffs.

“When I said Milwaukee, Wisconsin, they automatically assumed that I was a Freedom Rider. They loaded me up in the patty wagon and I was taking to Parchman. Not only was I taken to Parchman Prison, but I was also put on death row. I was in the cell with two other inmates who are there for murder, who have been tried found guilty, and sentenced to death. They were asking me Youngblood what are you doing here? I said I don’t know.”

The 13-year-old says terrified and confused. He admits his time there was a nightmare.

“I don’t think a word has been created to explain to you what happened. I was missed used and abused, and I’ll just put it to you like that and you can take any way you would like.”

After five long days in prison, the 13-year-old was released and sent to they’ve city of Jackson’s Jail.

And his mom was called to come pick him up, but this wouldn’t be the last time he would end up behind bars. Watkins became heavily entrenched in the civil rights movement: protesting, marching, boycotting, and demanding change in Mississippi.

In fact, he was arrested more than 100 times even going to jail with the late John Lewis.

“I was also arrested with Dr. King, I was arrested with Medgar Evers and all of the great Freedom Riders.”

Decades later, the 72-years-old has taken on a new job, but with a familiar theme.

He works as The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, meeting and greeting and sharing his story with locals and visitors.

His mugshot is now on the wall at the museum. It sits with others whose lives are a testimony of the Civil rights struggle

“Most of the civil rights workers have gone home, but there are still a few of us who are carrying on what we started 60 years ago.”

And his message to the next generation.

“Keep moving keep doing something positive in your community and in your school and in yourself, just do something that is meaningful, and it can happen. Do not take your eyes on the prize. once the eyes leave the prize that’s it. "

Copyright 2021 WLBT. All rights reserved.