‘Pushing Forward’: Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider is finally telling his story

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Hezekiah Watkins takes a look at his 1961 mugshot as he recounts his time as a Freedom Riders while at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Miss., Friday, May 24, 2019.

Take a tour through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, and you just may see the state’s youngest Freedom Rider — and not just in a 1961 mugshot photo on display in one of the museum galleries.

An employee of the museum, 71-year-old Hezekiah Watkins can be found at his workplace almost every day, giving tours and sharing the stories of his past.

Talking about his years as a young, black civil rights activist in Mississippi wasn’t always easy for Watkins, who was arrested more than 100 times. His first arrest landed him in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm.

Watkins, who clarifies that he was “just born” in Wisconsin but raised in Jackson, says reliving his traumatic experiences every day through the museum was triggering and even caused him to have nightmares.

“When I first started with the museum… there were some galleries there that I didn’t feel comfortable in.” he said. “I didn’t feel comfortable talking about things that happened to me when I was in Parchman.”

From witnessing history to Parchman Farm at age 13

One summer’s day in 1961, a pair of curious friends ventured to the Greyhound bus station in Jackson to get a glimpse of the Freedom Riders who were protesting segregated public transportation facilities. Despite the warnings from Watkins’ mother and pastor, Watkins and his friend decided to go anyway.

Watkins said the first thing his mother told him was that he could be killed. Other things that she said could happen? Their house could be burned down. His younger brother could be harmed. The list went on.

“That was shocking,” Watkins said. “All of these things took a toll, and I thought, ‘Eh, I’m not going to get involved.’ But I was so interested in the Freedom Riders — not the riders themselves, but what was happening to them. How they were being beaten. How they were being spit on. Kicked. Bit by dogs. And they were turning around and doing it all over again.”

Watkins didn’t have the initial urge to participate as a Freedom Rider. He just wanted the chance to witness some of the things he had been warned of. He even wanted to get so close to the scene of the sit-in that he could reach out and touch one of the riders, something he was convinced would earn him some clout.

But how close was too close?

“My friend pushed me inside of the bus station,” Watkins says.

Police approached the 13-year-old Watkins and asked him for two pieces of information: name and birthplace.

“I gave them my name,” Watkins says. “And my birthplace was Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

The latter piece of information was enough for police officers to proceed with arresting Watkins. They had mistaken him for an “outside agitator” from the Midwest, traveling South to cause disruption.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Hezekiah Watkins, Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider, is photographed outside of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Miss., Friday, May 24, 2019.

Transported to Parchman Farm and placed on death row, Watkins shared a cell with two inmates charged with murder. He was tormented, molested and physically abused, Watkins painfully recalls. The convicts would take his food and only leave some syrup and and biscuit for him to eat along with a piece of fat from the meat they snatched for themselves.

Five days later, Watkins was transported back to Jackson. His mother was contacted and told to go to the Jackson jail where she thought she would be identifying her son’s remains. Instead, she was met with an unexpected opportunity to embrace her son the moment of his release. Before he was released from custody, Watkins had to sign a stack of papers agreeing to not get involved in the movement anymore. Included on the form was a list of what would happen if he did.

Outwardly religious and firm in her beliefs and expectations, Watkins’ mother demanded that he avoid any activity that could classify him as a Freedom Rider.

“Headed home, I’m thinking everything is OK,” Watkins said. “My mom had a pretty good conversation with me going home. But we get home, and she tells me to go in the house and drop ’em… I dropped my clothes, and actually, she beat the hell out of me… for about an hour… seriously.”

Powerful sermon paves the way to “a hell of an experience”

Watkins kept his promise to his mother — but not for long.

After hearing about Watkins’ incarceration at Parchman, James Bevel — a significant figure and leader in the civil rights movement — came to Watkins’ house in Jackson. Although Watkins was clear that he had no desire to join the movement, Bevel saw something in Watkins. A religious man himself, Bevel eventually gained complete trust from Watkins’ mother after she witnessed him deliver a powerful sermon one day at church.

“He had the whole church in tears,” Watkins said. I’m not a big Christian even now, and I was less of a Christian back then. But when that man got up there and he began preaching — I’m a tell ya, and I don’t owe ya no lie — the Spirit was in me. And not just me, everybody in the church. It was just like when (Martin Luther King Jr. ) gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It was that powerful.”

Watkins says his mother was still crying on the way home from the church. She was convinced Bevel was “a God-sent man.”

Once they returned home, Bevel asked Watkins’ mother if her son could join his efforts in the movement.

“Without thinking my mom said, ‘If you promise me you’ll take care of him, I’ll allow him to go with you.'” Watkins said. ” And the rest is history. That’s when my journey actually began.”

Watkins went on to truly become a Freedom Rider, participating in 1964’s Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project. During that violent and blistering summer, Watkins and the other activists aimed to increase the black voter population in the state. They also established Freedom Schools, which offered free summer classes to black children in the South.

“It was a hell of an experience,” Watkins said. “I’m glad I was pushed in.”

“Pushing Forward”

Almost 55 years since accidentally becoming Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider, Watkins is finally telling his story in his book, Pushing Forward.

Watkins spent more than fifteen years sitting on the idea of writing a book. Although many people approached him with offers to help with the process, he had trouble finding someone he could trust.

All that changed last April when Petal native and writer Andrea Ledwell decided to take a slight detour on her way back home to Houston after visiting family in Hattiesburg. She was eager to visit the museum.

It was during her tour of the museum that she came across Watkins. He began telling Ledwell some of his story. She was fascinated and wanted to know more. And, with the apparent safe space that had been created between the two then-strangers, Watkins had no problem continuing the conversation.

Sereena Henderson / Mississippi Today

Hezekiah Watkins and Andrea Ledwell are photographed at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the place they met.

“You ever heard, ‘the chemistry must be there?'” Watkins asked during an interview with Mississippi Today. “Well, the chemistry had to have been there for us to connect. We did a lot of talking that day.”

Watkins had found the person to help tell his story. What followed was a year’s worth of hours-long phone calls, countless interviews, transcribing and writing.

“I really feel one of the most courageous things a person can do — especially facing those horrible experiences and that trauma during that time in history — is to share those stories with others,” Ledwell said. “I’m just so in awe of the whole thing, his courageous spirit, to be willing to put yourself out there to do that. It’s been an honor to have been a part of this process.”

Watkins and Ledwell don’t call each other friends. “We’re family,” they say.

During Watkins’ time growing up in segregated Mississippi, he wouldn’t have even had such a thought: befriending a white woman, much less having a white woman be the one to help tell his story.

“Whoever thought,” Watkins said. “There’s a lot of blacks and whites here in Jackson who are friends. But I don’t think they are as close as her family and my family are. I had no idea it would happen. But I’m glad she walked into my life.”

“At one point it dawned on me… Here I am, a white woman from Mississippi, and he’s an African American gentleman from Mississippi,” Ledwell said. “And we’re collaborating and doing this book together. To me, that symbolizes how far we’ve come. It’s a symbol of hope. It symbolizes everything we’re trying to accomplish.”

Sereena Henderson / Mississippi Today

Two Mississippi Museum ambassadors Mary Chump (left) and Mae Grant (right) hug Hezekiah Watkins after being the first two to purchase his book, “Pushing Forward.”

Ledwell traveled from Houston to Jackson for Wednesday’s “History is Lunch” event, taking place at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum at 12 p.m. She and Watkins spent Tuesday afternoon at the museum signing hundreds of copies of their book. This is the first time for both of them to have a book published.

The book is now on sale exclusively at the museum gift shop and online at pushingforwardbook.com.

Watkins says even if he doesn’t sell one book, he has received so much attention and support from Ledwell that he will be satisfied. For him, having her in his life “has been a blessing” and has helped him to push forward. His relationship with her and even the establishment of a civil rights museum has assured him that his home state is headed in a positive direction.

“Yeah, Mississippi is still dragging,” he said. But it’s moving. There are some states that aren’t even moving at all. We’re moving. The pace is very slow. But we’re still moving.”