Hollis Watkins wanted to tell the story of Hartman Turnbow, the late Mississippi Civil Rights activist who in 1963 – one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation – became one of the first Black residents to register to vote in Holmes County.
Watkins, himself a longtime Mississippi Civil Rights activist and founder of Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee Southern Echo of Jackson, recalled how Ku Klux Klansmen paid a late-night visit to Turnbow’s home days after he registered. They tossed firebombs and fired shots into his home.
Turnbow emerged from his home with a .22-caliber rifle and fired back, wounding one assailant as he watched them flee.
“He came out ready to shoot, surprised and a little disappointed he couldn’t shoot more because his gun only held 18 bullets,” said Watkins.
More than 50 years after that moment that inspired other African Americans across Mississippi to civic engagement, Watkins is surprised and disappointed that Turnbow’s name and feats aren’t more widely known.
That’s the reason Watkins authored “Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man.” It’s a riveting book that chronicles Hollis Watkins’s tenure as a field secretary for Mississippi’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), stories of Hartman Turnbow and other heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for power and equality in the Jim Crow South.
People like Hartman Turnbow come alive in the page turner, which includes black-and-white photos of him and others in the movement (including Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker) and firsthand accounts of his conversations with Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis and Julian Bond.
But Watkins, who recently retired from Southern Echo, prefers to lift up others like NAACP activist Vernon Dahmer, a Mississippian murdered by Klansmen who firebombed and fired shots through his home after he led voter registration efforts.
“I did the book,” Watkins said, “because when I began to look at the material that had been published about people involved in the Civil Rights Movement, there were too many that should have been mentioned and talked about that were left out.”
He added: “We didn’t talk about [Mississippi activist] Herbert Lee the way he should have been talked about, a man that was killed in broad open daylight in Amite County by a state representative that was never brought to justice. I attempted to reach back and cover some of those things in the book.”
Watkins also mentions many who he mentored during and after the Civil Rights Movement, including Derrick Johnson, current President and CEO of the NAACP, a Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee.
“The book is a must read,” said Johnson. “It truly captures the journey of an individual who has committed his life’s work to help others. It is a story about someone who was able to appreciate community so much that [he] sacrificed a lot for the community that he loves.”
Since its inception, Marguerite Casey Foundation has used the Foundation’s investments of multiyear, unrestricted grants to embrace family-led movement building in places like Mississippi. The Foundation stands with low-income families and communities of color, working to elevate their voices, highlight their experiences, and – as Watkins and other unheralded leaders did during the Civil Rights struggle – emboldening them to act on their own behalf for change.