I Met a Mississippi Freedom Rider

Civil Rights March

My wife and I had the opportunity to celebrate 10-years of marriage on February 14, 2020. As always we set a reservation to our favorite restaurant in Dallas called Simply Fondue. After our dinner, we set off to Grand Prairie, Texas, to see El Debarge, Tamia, and Babyface in concert. It was a great evening of celebration for us!

While we were in Texas we stayed at a nice hotel and we ate breakfast every morning downstairs. On the previous day before all the festivities took place, we ate breakfast that morning near the rear of the breakfast room. I was able to see who was coming in and out of the breakfast area.

Since I’m from the South, it is custom for me to speak to someone I make eye contact with or come across. That’s one thing my parents and grandparents taught me, especially my grandmother. That morning I saw a black gentleman with a black suit, white dress shirt, and a black tie on. I gave him a nod and he nodded back as well. Afterwards my family and I got up and went back to our rooms to get the rest of the day started!

The next morning my family and I went down to eat breakfast. It was on a Sunday morning and there were quite a few people eating breakfast. We had to wait a few minutes to get a seat. When we finally did, my wife went to fix the girls’ plates and her plate. While I was sitting with my girls, the gentleman I saw the morning before asked if the table next to us was occupied. I told him it was not.

As my wife was returning to the table with her and the girls’ breakfast, a friend (Dr. Bowie) of the gentleman greeted him. I then went to get my breakfast and saw the friend. She told me I had a beautiful family and that last night they had a celebration for the Freedom Riders. She said they had The Temptations as the musical performance. She then told me that the gentleman sitting next to me and my family was Hezekiah “Heck” Watkins, Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider.

Hezekiah “Heck” Watkin’s Mug Shot

At this point, I am overwhelmed with joy because I love learning and reading about Civil Rights icons. I finished fixing my plate and went to shake his hands and thanked him for his contributions. As I do with any of my elders, I asked him how was it when Martin Luther King, Jr. died? He told me that it was a hard time for the black community and he felt that he had just lost a father. He told me that although things have gotten better that things are still not where they need to be. He also told me that some of things that is happening in our communities is self-inflicted. Yet, he remained hopeful that things would turn around for us. He said to me that he was proud of me and that he had been watching me and the way I interacted with my daughters and my wife. He said it brought joy to his heart to see me love being a husband and a father!

I could have talked all day with this man, but I wanted to respect his time. I told him that he put the icing on the cake for the weekend celebration! We exchanged contact information and I asked if I could take a picture with he and his friend. I told them that my dad was going to be excited that I met them. He told me to tell my dad a “fun fact” that he had been arrested over 100 times! After the picture we hugged and they even invited me and my wife to next year’s festivities!

Pictured from (L) to Right: Me, Dr. Bowie, and Mr. Hezekiah “Heck” Watkins

I learned a valuable lesson that day: “You never know who you are in the presence of.” Had we not seen each other again the day we greeted with a nod, I would not have known I met a Civil Rights icon. It’s much like my experience with meeting Bob Moses and Dave Dennis while in high school. I’ll save that story for another blog post though. But you never know, I may have seen Mr. Hezekiah “Heck” Watkins on a documentary and recalled that “Hey, I saw him at my hotel February 2020!” I’m so glad I got a chance to meet him face to face! I pray to remain in contact with him and Dr. Bowie.

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