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In 1961, US Supreme Court decisions that overturned racial segregation in interstate travel were largely ignored in the South. To challenge this status quo, more than 400 black and white Americans, called Freedom Riders, performed a simple act. They traveled into the segregated South in small interracial groups and sat where they pleased on interstate buses. The Freedom Rides began on May 4, 1961, with a group of thirteen Riders recruited and trained by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). By the summer, the Rides had evolved into a broad-based movement involving hundreds of activists from local, regional, and national civil rights organizations. Finally, on September 22, the Freedom Riders triumphed. The Interstate Commerce Commission issued a sweeping desegregation order. As of November 1, Jim Crow signs had to be removed from bus stations. Every interstate bus had to display a certificate: “Seating aboard this vehicle is without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin, by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission.” The Freedom Rides led to further federal civil rights legislation and have become a model for grassroots movements to bring about social change.
The filmmaker, Stanley Nelson, creates a powerful and searing documentary by pairing archival footage with interviews. The videotaped interviews with the some of the Riders transport viewers back to the events and horrors the riders faced. Many endured savage beatings and imprisonment. Interviewees include: John Lewis, a college student who now serves as a member of Congress; Joan Trumpauer, then a nineteen-year-old secretary in Washington, DC, who spent months in Parchman State Penitentiary, the harshest prison in Mississippi; Jim Zwerg, a Wisconsin student on exchange at Fisk University, who was hospitalized after a mob beat him with bats and pipes in Montgomery, Alabama; Hank Thomas, a student at Howard University who became active in the SNCC; Diane Nash, who had led successful non-violent student protest at Fisk University and monitored the progress of the Rides from Nashville, Tennessee, recruiting new Riders and speaking to the press; and John Seigenthaler, Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s man on the ground who recounts events from the perspective of the government and later became a victim of mob violence himself.
National Endowment for the Humanities. (n.d.). Freedom Riders. Retrieved from http://createdequal.neh.gov/films/freedom-riders
Join us for a dynamic presentation by Freedom Rider Dave Dennis followed by a panel discussion with Freedom Riders Dave Dennis, Hezekiah Watkins and Hollis Watkins on February 13th at 3:00 p.m. in Mitchell Memorial Library's John Grisham Room. The session will be moderated by Dr. Stephen Middleton.
Founder and Director of the Southern Initiative Algebra Project, Freedom Rider
Dave Dennis is founder and director of the Southern Initiative Algebra Project. As former president and CEO of Positive Innovations, Inc., he facilitated Algebra Project implementation in 21 school districts in seven southern states, designed and implemented community development and outreach programs at local sites, and developed a Community Development Leadership Training Program. He was field secretary of the Southern Education Defense Fund for Racial Equality, responsible for organizing and conducting voter registration workshops throughout the South; Southern regional program director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO); and a key architect of the Mississippi Freedom Summer from 1962 to 1965. He is cited in numerous books and has made multiple appearances in radio and television documentaries on civil rights. Dennis holds a BS and a BA degree from Dillard University and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Michigan Law School.
Southern Initiative Algebra Project (2012). Who We Are: Key Staff and Consultants. Retrieved from http://siap.us/WhoWeAre.html
Panelist: Hezekiah Watkins, Freedom Rider
Born in Milwaukee, WIS, Watkins moved to Pearl, MS at the age of 2 with his family. Watkins received his high school diploma from Lanier High School continuing his education at Utica Junior College, Southern Illinois University (Carbondale, ILL) and East Tennessee State University (Johnson City, TN). Watkins began his employment history as a young entrepreneur moving to employment with Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Center and Hinds County Human Recourses Agency. Presently, Watkins is employed with the Jackson Medical Mall and owner of the Corner Food Market & Deli, Jackson, MS. Watkins became a lifelong proponent of ’justice’ after being arrested at the young age of 13 while attempting to purchase a bus ticket at the Greyhound Bus Station. That arrest landed him in Parchman on Death Row and approximately 100 subsequent arrests for the cause of justice and equality. Those experiences instilled in him a dedication based on a commitment to improve the quality of life and opportunities for our youth and all mankind. Watkins has been privileged in marriage for the past 25 years to the former Chris Tanner. Together, they delight in the joys of 3 children, Marvin, Quentin and Kristi and 4 grandchildren, Quentin II, Brandon, Corey and Mason.
Panelist: Hollis Watkins, President and Co-Founder of Southern Echo, Freedom Rider
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. 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.
Hollis Watkins is the Founder and President of Southern Echo, Inc., 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 concerns, economic development, and community organizing. 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. 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.
Moderator: Dr. Stephen Middleton
Dr. Middleton is a Professor of History and Director of African American Studies at Mississippi State University. He received his B.A. degree from Morris College (cum laude), the M.A. degree from The Ohio State University, and the Ph.D. degree from Miami University (Ohio). He completed the first-year curriculum in law at New York University School of Law where he was a Samuel I. Golieb Fellow in Legal History. His research interest involves race and the American legal system.