Hollis Watkins drove north to Washington 20 years ago to irritate the big shots. When the march turned out to be as orderly as a Sunday school picnic, he felt betrayed.
"My whole idea was to go there and sit-in and lay-in, to disrupt things to the point that they would listen and agree to certain concessions," recalls Watkins.
At age 22, he was then a veteran civil rights organizer, a Mississippi farm kid turned field worker for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC had enlisted young organizers like Watkins, who were derided as "outside agitators" by angry whites, to lead desegregation and voter-registration drives across the South.
By the time he went to Washington, Watkins had had two years of practice eluding the shotgun-toting whites who prowled at night in unlicensed cars through the Mississippi Delta towns where he worked persuading poor, often terrified blacks to register to vote. He had been arrested three times and served 121 days in jail.
On the afternoon of the march, none of the day's speakers said what Watkins wanted to hear. So he pushed his way toward the podium at the Lincoln Memorial. He wanted to sing some of the "freedom" songs he had sung to embolden frightened blacks in Mississippi churches, to tell the crowd about the repression and poverty of the Delta. He was stopped by police and threatened with arrest.
"I left Washington angry and disillusioned," Watkins recalls.
Hollis Watkins is now a 42-year-old real estate salesman in Jackson. His mustache and his sideburns are turning gray. He is divorced and his job history is filled with false starts and disappointments. But Watkins has not left his home state of Mississippi, the poorest in the country. He still works in voter-registration drives and says he's planning to start a black newspaper.
"If you are for real, being here in Mississippi and especially being a black person, you can't divorce yourself from the movement," says Watkins.
The movement began for Watkins in 1961 when he was 19 years old and working on his father's farm near McComb. "I heard that Doctor King and some big people were out in McComb, so I decided to go and check 'em out," he says.
Instead of Martin Luther King, Watkins found Robert Moses, a SNCC organizer in charge of a local voter-registration project. He also found Marion Barry, another SNCC organizer (and now mayor of Washington), who taught him nonviolent tactics for "direct action."
"I hoped and prayed that I would never be put in a situation where I had to prove I was nonviolent. . . . I knew I was not," Watkins says now.
Within weeks of meeting the SNCC people, Watkins and a friend staged a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in McComb. It was the first civil rights demonstration in the town's history. Watkins was arrested and marched off to jail. Charges were eventually dropped, but not before Watkins spent 34 days in jail learning about the white anger his 10-minute sit-in had provoked.
"We had a lot of visits by white citizens," says Watkins. ". . . One time, they attempted to set me up for an escape. They brought me out of the jail, told me I was free to go if I wanted to go. I told them I preferred to stay until someone put up bail. After I didn't go, they told me they had bloodhounds ready to chase me. They told me, 'Nigger, you better be glad you didn't.' They told me they wanted to see their dogs eat my ass out."
After McComb, Watkins became, at $10-a-week, a full-time SNCC field secretary. He worked for nearly five years in Mississippi towns such as Hattiesburg, Greenwood and Tchula. In charge of 23 white students and five blacks who had come south in 1964 for the "Freedom Summer" registration drive, Watkins remembers that he was--at age 23--"a dictator. . . . I told them how I felt about them coming down here for three months and then going back to their ivory-tower life."
He objected to whites coming down to the Delta and "taking away the major focus from the local blacks." While he came to respect the courage of the white students who worked for him, he still thinks their coming was a mistake.
Watkins never developed the black-power bitterness of many SNCC workers, but he says he always feared that the civil rights movement would lose its momentum if too many outside whites or northern blacks were in positions of authority.
He says now that progress for black people in Mississippi has been "a lot less than I expected." He blames that lack of progress on the failure of grass-roots civil rights leaders to channel the emotional fervor of the early 1960s--as exemplified in the March on Washington--into "permanent and self-perpetuating organizations."