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Hollis Watkins Describes Police Intimidation in the Voter Registration Campaign

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) enlisted young people and local leaders to register and encourage southern African-Americans to vote during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960�s. Because the young organizers faced tremendous risks by challenging segregation and encouraging people to vote, the group earned a reputation as the “shock troops” of the Civil Rights Movement. Hollis Watkins joined SNCC in the early 1960�s and canvassed potential voters in the area of McComb, Mississippi. He also participated in direct actions, for which he served time in jail. Watkins remembered the risks SNCC organizers faced when working alone and in pairs, and the support they received from the African-American community.

Listen to Audio:

WATKINS: Well, it was very plain and simple because we when we got there, we said, “We were told that Dr. King and other big folks are out here holding meetings,” so we wanted to know if we were at the right place and where Dr. King was and whether that was the case. And he said that he didn’t know anything about Dr. King, that he and other students were out here. He said, “Me and some other young folks are out here working with people on voter registration, trying to get them to become registered voters, where they can become first-class citizens while participating in the political process.” He asked if we knew the process by which people became registered voters, and we told him we wasn’t sure, you know, of the entire process. We knew a couple of folks that were registered and maybe a couple of folks that maybe had tried, but we wasn’t sure about the entire process. So he asked if we were interested in learning. So we said, “Yes.” So he gave us the form and asked us to fill it out. Then, after completing the form, he gave us a section of the Constitution of Mississippi to interpret. After doing that, he looked at the form and said, “Well, if you had been old enough and had gone to the courthouse and did exactly what you have done here, then you would be qualified to be a registered voter.” So he said, “Now that you know how it’s done and can do it, will you be willing to work with us and assist us in getting other people to register?” He says, “Part of the way we do it is we go out and we pass out flyers and we talk to people in the community, encourage them to come by the office. And every so often we have meetings, mass meetings, and we invite them to come to the mass meetings where we sing and talk and explain things to people. So, are you interested and willing to help?” So, I told him that I was.

In most cases, you would attempt to do it with someone, but if you didn’t have someone, you went alone. Now in Holmes County, one of the most interesting things took place, you know, for me in that I remember very specifically in the town of Durant, where the local police there was attempting to arrest me—and this is the time I’m doing it by myself—was attempting to arrest me without the community people seeing him arrest me. So, I’m canvassing, going door-to-door, and the police is trying to wait, to hang out to catch me when nobody was on the porch looking, because at this particular time people were sitting out on the porch and everything. So he would drive his car up and as I would come out of people’s homes and before I could get to the next place, he would attempt to catch me. And once I caught on to what he was doing, I just told people, I says, “Well, the police is attempting to arrest me for talking to you all about registering to vote. It just goes to show you,” here again we are educating, “It just goes to show you how much they value it and don’t want you to be registered voters because they know that you could then have some impact on their jobs,” and et cetera." But—then after a while, they really decided not to attempt to catch me and arrest me but [to] use that as an intimidating factor. They would go up and down the street—

RACHAL: Sort of following you?

WATKINS: Sometimes kind of following me; other times just doing the siren and then just sitting on the street as an effort to intimidate the community.

Source: Interviewed by John Rachal 10/23/96, 10/29/96, 10/30/96
Courtesy of Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive McCain Library and Archive, University of Southern Mississippi