Hollis Watkins is currently president of Southern Echo, a leadership development and education organization, that provides training and technical assistance to individuals and organizations throughout the South in the areas of politics, education, environmental programs, economic development, and law.
Hollis is a powerful force in the efforts to carry on the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. For the past decade, Southern Echo has organized and supported local redistricting efforts aimed at more effective black political representation, carried out voter education and registration, and monitored election practices. Southern Echo has also resisted efforts to change the Mississippi constitution to roll back the progress that has been made toward genuine democracy. Hollis was the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging Mississippi’s districting. Southern Echo has enabled communities to create environmental safety zones that will protect communities from harmful land use. Successful community organizing has blocked the placement of toxic waste facilities and stopped agricultural practices with adverse public health consequences in black communities.
Mr. Watkins was born in 1941, in Lincoln County, Mississippi. He is the youngest of twelve children of sharecroppers John and Lena Watkins. Watkins first attended the McNulty School, a small community school, then was bussed to Lincoln County Training School, from which he graduated in 1960. During this period, he was not very politically active, though he attended several NAACP youth meetings where he met Medgar Evers.
In 1961, he was the first Mississippi student to become involved in the Mississippi Voting Rights Project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Highlander Research and Education Center, and the Southern Sustainable Agricultural Working Group (SSAWG). Mr. Watkins is a co-founder and member of the Civil Rights Veterans of Mississippi, and currently serves as its chairperson.
Shortly after seeing the Freedom Riders on television, he attended a meeting in McComb, where he met Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). After that meeting, he joined SNCC and began canvassing potential voters in the McComb area. One of his first direct actions was a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in McComb, for which he was arrested and jailed for thirty-four days. His participation in a walk-out at the high school in McComb got him another stint in jail, this time for thirty-nine days.
On hearing of the work that was going on in the McComb area, Vernon Dahmer, president of the Forrest County NAACP, requested assistance with voter registration. Watkins was transferred to Hattiesburg, where he lived on the Vernon Dahmer property and continued working on voter registration. He was next transferred to Holmes County, this time at the request of Amzie Moore. With John Ball, he started the Holmes County Project. He also became involved in the Citizenship Classes set up by Annell Ponder and ultimately run by the Reverend J.J. Russell.
Hollis has worked continuously to empower people through the political process. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he organized voters in four small Mississippi towns—Marks, Rolling Fork, Belzoni, and Gloster. His work in these towns resulted in the election of their first majority black city council and black mayor.
Since then Hollis has been involved in managing and advising many political campaigns, some of which included the following:
1984 – Mississippi State Campaign Manager, Presidential Campaign of the Reverend Jesse Jackson
1986 – Field Coordinator for Mike Espy who was elected the first African-American Congressman from Mississippi in 100 years
1987 – Coordinated the black vote, which led to Mike Moore’s election as Attorney General of the State of Mississippi
1988 – State Coordinator, Presidential Campaign of the Reverend Jesse Jackson
1989 – Coordinated the black vote which was instrumental in Kane Ditto’s election as Mayor of the City of Jackson, Mississippi
1993 – helped Bennie Thompson get elected as a Congressman from Mississippi
Campaign Manager for the Honorable Pat Wise in her first campaign for Hinds County (MS) Chancery Judge
Campaign Manager for the Honorable Robert Gibbs in his first campaign for Circuit Judge (MS)
Campaign consultant for Eddie Fair, the first African-American to be elected as Tax Collector in Hinds County (MS)