By Conner Owens
“After being released from jail, I was introduced to (King) as one of the youngest Freedom Riders during a march.”
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. This act of violence echoed throughout the nation and sent the United States into hysteria. King had an impact on the lives of many who met him. Hezekiah Watkins had a personal encounter with King.
Watkins, who was one of the youngest Freedom Riders, said he was jailed at age 13 for being a participant. When he and one of his friends wanted to get a closer look at the people who were traveling and fighting for equality, they rode their bikes to the Greyhound Station in Jackson.
Watkins said he could not see across the street, so he and his friend ran over to look inside, but when he tried to stop at the door, he said, “Troy pushed me in.”
This put Watkins on a path to fight for freedom, but it was a scary road. He was sent to jail for being a Freedom Rider that day at the Greyhound Station.
“When I was in prison, I was there with convicted killers,” he said.
Since then, Watkins said he has been jailed more than 100 times for trying to find a peaceful way to become equal in society. As an avid civil rights leader, King noticed Watkins’ activism and asked him to march in Jackson when he was there.
Watkins recalls eating dinner with King. “This place on Farish Street called Steven’s Kitchen – it was known as the place for blacks to eat in the ’60s,” he said. “I recall sitting at the table with him maybe once or twice. He was like a family member … I recall having a hamburger steak with gravy and mashed potatoes, and I remember him saying to put mine on his ticket.”
Watkins said he was in the military at Fort Lee, Virginia, when King was assassinated. “One of the guys had a radio, and I recall them saying come to the dayroom,” he said. “That’s where the TV and lounge chair were to socialize.
“There were more whites in the unit than blacks, and I’m trying to listen to what they were saying, but also understand why this guy had been murdered.
“There were some white guys behind me, and I remember one of them just breaking down and crying. I remember one of them saying, ‘What is going to become of the world,’ and I guess within 30 minutes or less, a little riot broke out on the base.”
Watkins said the mindset on the base was different. “It affected not just me, but every soldier who was there,” he said. “Either you were sad or you were glad. For the next few days, no one talked about it.”
Watkins said losing King was like losing a family member. “You just don’t have the words,” he said. “The interaction I had was short lived with him. After being released from jail, I was introduced to him as one of the youngest Freedom Riders during a march, and he asked for me to come up front with him. Several other times, he came to Jackson. There wasn’t a lot of times I got to see him, but even when he came to town, he asked me, ‘Hi. How’re you doing?’”
Watkins said we have lost sight of the Dream, but it’s not too late to reclaim it. He said all it takes is someone to stand up and push forward.