How Hezekiah Watkins became the youngest Freedom Rider — by accident
Editor’s note: This is Watkins’ story as he related it to KPBS. Listen to a condensed recording above.
At 13 years old, Hezekiah Watkins was placed on death row with no due process at Parchman Prison in Mississippi. His crime? Being mistaken for a Freedom Rider.
In 1961, hundreds of Black and white protesters were arrested for riding together on segregated buses into the South. Their images were splashed across national television.
One day that year, Watkins fell asleep watching cartoons and woke up to unbelievable images — not just Black people, but white people too, were being beaten by police and hosed to the ground by fire trucks.
He ran next door to his friend Troy and begged him to watch and explain the news to him. But Troy was dumbfounded, too. He’d never seen anything like it.
“I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what they call them,’” Watkins remembered, “‘but they got to be some bad folks.’”
The news anchor called them Freedom Riders. Watkins and Troy were hooked, glued to the news every day, trying to piece together answers.
They tried asking adults, but were told not to mess with the Freedom Riders. Their house could be burned down, a flaming cross stuck into their yard — more things Watkins didn’t understand.
When they asked a trusted teacher, “He raised up from his desk, looked us in our eyes and said, ‘Get the hell out of here,’” Watkins said. “‘You must want me to lose my job!’”
One day, Troy delivered good news. The Freedom Riders were coming to their city: Jackson, Mississippi.
Watkins said they were so happy, they burst into spontaneous dance and song: “The Freedom Riders are coming to Jackson! They coming to Jackson!”
It’s not that they wanted to join the Freedom Riders, Watkins said. They just wanted to see them. He remembered thinking that just touching a Freedom Rider might bring some relief. Like the woman in the Bible was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment.
The Freedom Riders were coming on a Sunday — a church day. But Troy had a plan.
They pretended to be sick and their parents allowed them to stay home from church. Then they walked to the Greyhound bus station.
When they arrived, the station was empty.
They started racing up and down the station sidewalk to pass the time. They went to drink water from a fountain before noticing “Whites Only” written on the bricks.
“I looked at Troy, and Troy looked at me, and we didn’t utter one word, because we knew we were going to drink us some white water,” Watkins said.
“White water” was healthier, they agreed, filled with vitamins and minerals. It was better in every way. It tasted like Kool-Aid, they decided.
When they finally turned to go home, they began roughhousing, shoving each other playfully as they walked.
When they were passing the door to the station, Troy pushed again. Watkins fell inside the station and onto the floor. That moment changed the rest of Watkins’ life.
He looked up and saw “Whites Only” written across the ceiling. Before he could back out, an officer hit him on his shoulder and asked why he was there.
Watkins told him his friend had pushed him, but Troy was no longer in sight.
When the officer demanded his name and birthplace, he told him: Hezekiah Watkins. Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Milwaukee lay north, where the Freedom Riders came from.
The officer radioed something Watkins couldn’t hear. Officers came running in “like flies” and said, “We got another one here.”
Watkins didn’t know what was happening or why. He’d later learn that Freedom Riders were arrested that day, likely before he and Troy arrived.
The officers handcuffed him, boarded him onto a transport vehicle, and drove him hours north to Parchman, a state prison notorious then and now as one of the worst in America.
Watkins didn’t know it was a prison. He thought it looked like an old school, but he noticed wire atop the fence. They ordered him —125 pounds at most, he said — to drag a mattress to his cell on death row.
“The click click and the slamming of the doors is not a good feeling,” Watkins said.
The other incarcerated people on death row wanted to know why Watkins, so young, was there. He said he didn’t do anything, and they began laughing. It’s what they all said.
They asked Watkins, 'Who was the judge?' He didn’t know. 'You don’t know the jury who sent you here? No. Who was your lawyer?'
Watkins had never met a real lawyer. The only lawyer he knew was a fictional one on T.V. So he said, “Perry Mason.”
“And they thought that was the biggest joke they ever heard,” he said. “And that’s when the beating started. My food was taken. It was just a rough time there.”
To this day, Watkins doesn’t like to discuss those 11 days — which felt like years — in Parchman.
His mother didn’t know where he was. She managed to organize both Black and white neighbors to look for him. Police told Watkins’ mother not to worry — he had probably just run away to Detroit or Chicago, or he was dead.
Inside Parchman, Watkins didn’t know that President John F. Kennedy called then-governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, to question him about minors being held in his state’s prison. Burnett denied it, Watkins said, but the next day Barnett ordered Parchman to release Watkins.
When they called his mother to pick Watkins up, she thought they were asking her to identify his remains, Watkins said. So when she walked into the Jackson police station and saw her son, “she just went berserk.”
She ran to Watkins, who was still handcuffed, and they both fell to the floor.
“We on the floor, and she’s squeezing me like she’s trying to kill me,” Watkins said.
They released Watkins. His mother drove them home, cradling Watkins until she could barely operate the brakes anymore, he said, praising the Lord for returning her son alive.
She did not want to know what had happened, Watkins said, and Troy hadn’t told. She beat Watkins with a switch when they returned home.
When Watkins returned to school, an organizer named James Bevel tried to recruit him to become an activist. Watkins unbuttoned his shirt to show the marks still on his torso from the beating.
“And you want me to become a who now?” Watkins said. “I said, ‘You can take that ‘activist’ and you can go shove it as far as it will go.”
But the man persisted, and eventually convinced Watkins to protest that tax dollars were being used to pave the streets in white neighborhoods but not in Black neighborhoods.
Watkins said he agreed mostly because he wanted to be able to show off his skating to his mother, and couldn’t do it on their gravel road.
It was the start of lifelong activism for Watkins. He went on to be arrested 108 more times.
He became the youngest Freedom Rider, he said, and the one with the most arrests.
He’s proud of each one.