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, 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.
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 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.
From 1968 through 1972, he served as Director of Social Services for the statewide Head Start Program. While in this position, he established co-ops and buying clubs throughout the state.
In 1973 Hollis’ “do for self” philosophy led him to obtain a real estate license and set up his own construction company. In 1974, he established a produce and egg distribution business. In 1975, he went to Alabama to manage farms for the Nation of Islam, which consisted of 5,000 acres in Green County and 3,700 acres in Maringo County. After one year in Alabama, the Nation of Islam asked him to go to Georgia to manage livestock production. Later he served as Field Director for the Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Program of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives.
Since then Hollis has been involved in managing and advising many political campaigns, including
- 1967 – Helped Robert Clark become the first African-American elected to the Mississippi State Legislature since reconstruction
- 1984 – Mississippi State Campaign Manager, Presidential Campaign of the Reverend Jesse Jackson
- 1986 – Field Coordinator for Mike Espy, who was elected the first African-American Congressman from Mississippi in 100 years
- 1987 – Coordinated the black vote, which led to Mike Moore’s election as Attorney General of the State of Mississippi
- 1988 – State Coordinator, Presidential Campaign of the Reverend Jesse Jackson
- 1989 – Coordinated the black vote which was instrumental in Kane Ditto’s election as Mayor of the City of Jackson, Mississippi
- 1993 – Helped Bennie Thompson get elected as a Congressman from Mississippi
- Campaign Manager for the Honorable Pat Wise in her first campaign for Hinds County (MS) Chancery Judge
- Campaign Manager for the Honorable Robert Gibbs in his first campaign for Circuit Judge (MS)
- Campaign consultant for Eddie Fair, the first African-American to be elected as Tax Collector in Hinds County (MS)
Hollis was a core participant in the 1990-1992 successful community-based redistricting efforts in Mississippi, and was the lead plaintiff in the 1991 redistricting suit to force the State to comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In 1989 Hollis expanded his “do for self” philosophy to include the community, thus leading him to formally establish Southern Echo, Inc., a non-profit leadership development, education, and training organization. Southern Echo, Inc. provides training and technical assistance to individuals, groups, and organizations in Mississippi and throughout the South. This work is done in seven broad areas—community organizing, education, environment, economic development, legal, agriculture, political process. Hollis is the founder of Southern Echo, Inc. and serves as its President.
Hollis’ work through Southern Echo led to doubling the size of the Mississippi Black Legislative Caucus. Through a single election the black legislative seats were increased from 21 to 42. Hollis has been instrumental in preventing several unwanted and undesirable landfills from being established in Mississippi, as well as preventing the establishment of huge hog farms (factories) in Mississippi. Hollis’ work continues to force the political and educational systems of Mississippi to become more accountable.
Various groups and organizations have recognized Hollis’ dedication to community. In 1990, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) presented him the President Award for an outstanding humanitarian and civil rights activist. In 1993, he received the prestigious Bannerman Award for his activism, the Meritorious Leadership Award from Tougaloo College, and the Harriet Tubman Award from the Magnolia Bar Foundation for community leadership in civil rights. In 2000, Jackson City Councilman Kenneth Stokes presented him with the Minister Louis Farrakhan Award for outstanding and dedicated service, and the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice awarded him the Trailblazer Award in 2002. He has received numerous awards and honors from African-American educational, labor, church, and community institutions in Mississippi as well as from out-of-state institutions.
For 51 years Hollis has used music in his organizing efforts to help communities block toxic waste facilities, stop toxic agricultural practices, and achieve more effective black political representation through redistricting. He is a co-founder and the current Board Chairman of Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, and serves on the boards of Highlander Research & Education Center and Southern Sustainable Agricultural Working Group (SSAWG).