In the Middle of the Iceberg
Remembrance of Hollis Watkins
From Trinity College SNCC Reunion, April 1988

Originally published in A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

(Sings) They laid Medgar Evers in his grave.

Before Medgar there was Emmett Till, there was Herbert Lee, after Medgar tere were three civil rights workers: Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner. I mention that to try to justify the subject "In the middle of the iceberg," to let you see a little bit about the conditions that existed in Mississippi because from my understanding, if you look at an iceberg, if you're in the middle of it, you're in a bad condition. If you run into the iceberg, it's going to bring some harm and damage to you. And if it runs into you, the same is going to happen. And I think based on what we were dealing with in Mississippi, the title is appropriate. Although from my understanding and my experience, the iceberg was not just Mississippi, but more so America. And Mississippi was just one little aspect or corner of that iceberg.

I'm Hollis Watkins and I'm the twelfth child that was born to some sharecroppers down in southwest Mississippi. And I'm thankful that I got involved with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I'm thankful that SNCC came along and I got involved in it because as I see things, SNCC was an organization that had begun to rake up a few leaves, to gather a few sticks, putting them all together in one common pile to start a fire, to burn in the midst of this iceberg. SNCC began to get the leaves together, bring the sticks together, pour a little fuel on it, and began to strike the stones together to create a spark in the hearts of those of us who could not see the light. After a period of time we saw that spark and that spark became a blaze in our hearts and in the hearts of our brothers and sisters. And we ourselves as a whole began to add fuel to the fire and the fuel came in many, many different forms. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that grew out of SNCC — that was one of the back logs that SNCC laid on the fire.

You know, as SNCC began to search for fuel, SNCC reached into the hearts of the churches and the National Council of Churches said, "I see the flame." And then they got involved and saw to it that a group of ministers and other supporters came into Mississippi and as a result of that, they created another log in the form of the Delta Ministry. And as SNCC began to pull the different parts together and people in the different communities began to see the sparks fly, they began to ignite and cause other small fires to start springing up elsewhere.

When the Freedom Democratic Party blew up, there was a big commotion, but there was a commotion even before then, in the McComb area where I went in search of Dr. Martin Luther King and found Bob Moses. When we got involved, that led to demonstrations at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter, that led to demonstrations at the bus station, that led to students walking out of Burgland High School — that whole movement itself created the beginning of another log that was important, because as a result of that movement, SNCC set up its first Freedom School in 1961.

Because in that process, some of the students decided that they were not going to go back to Burgland High School. The principal had laid down a stipulation that said you may reenter high school if you will sign a statement saying that you will not participate in civil rights activities anymore. Many of the students and their parents didn't agree with that, because they had seen the light, and they didn't sign those statements. And as a result of that, SNCC set up its first Freedom School in McComb so that these students that had walked out in protest of their fellow students not being able to come back could continue their education. That broadened SNCC's relationship that reached on into the AME Methodist Church, because J.P. Campbell College in Jackson finally opened its doors and said, "We have a little more space, we'll make room for them, bring them here."

So the sparks began to fly. They began to spread. And as they began to spread, more things began to fall in place. Now I think we need to set the record straight about COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations, set up in 1962. COFO, for the most part, was a good-conscience effort that we made to show a sense of unity and harmony, especially to try to prevent the conflict in fund raising. It was hard at that time to raise money, especially when in Mississippi you had the NAACP going after the money, SCLC going after the money, CORE going after the money, and SNCC going after the money, and in Mississippi we know SNCC was doing 'most all of the work. So we also know that most of the work that was done under the name of COFO, SNCC was the one that was doing it.

One of the things that was so important about SNCC as it began to pull the pieces together, not just in Mississippi, was being able to educate, motivate, and inspire people from different areas to get up and do something and take some initiative upon themselves. And as a result of that, when we looked at the SNCC staff as SNCC began to spread and reach out from McComb, after a very short period of time, most of the SNCC staff in Mississippi were Mississippians. When we looked at the SNCC staff in other areas, we saw that it was that handful that had begun to motivate and encourage and inspire others to do something from those areas.

When we came into Hattiesburg in 1962, we had reached the level of being a SNCC field secretary, proud, determined, prepared to take on the world if necessary. Had a little money in our pocket, SNCC gave us $50 to go to Hattiesburg and set up a three-month voter registration project. Things were just that tough. And when it came to the situation where we got in jail, the bond situation was even much more devastating, because in Mississippi, for almost everything you got arrested for, you generally had a $2,000 bond set [equal to $15,500 in 2013]. In Mississippi at that time they were not accepting property bonds, neither were there any bondsmen in Mississippi that were willing to work and cooperate with SNCC. That's why those that were in charge of the direct action would tell you that if you're going to jail, be prepared to serve your sentence out. After a while they told you to be prepared to serve at least thirty days in jail because they knew and we knew that it was not easy.

And there were many things that helped to spark more people into the whole process. As we moved from the McComb area into Hattiesburg, into the other areas of the state and especially into the Delta area, into Greenwood in 1962, there was another important figure. Dick Gregory led an initiative in the fall of 1962 with the help of Harry Belafonte and a few other people to do some fund raising. In addition to that they brought in food and clothing into the Mississippi Delta, while we were trying to get people to go down and register to vote.

And one day, just before we were getting ready to give out food and clothing, we had all those people gathered there and Bob Moses made a little speech. He said, "You know, it would be good if we could really begin to move toward truly impacting on the situation that causes us to not have food, that causes us to not have clothes." To make a long story short, that was directed toward becoming registered voters to elect the kind of people that were going to see that that happened. And as a result of that we got our first large demonstration in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963, which really broke things open for us because from that point on Mississippi had really begun to get a lot of attention.

So SNCC began to really pile on the logs that have impacted on what is going on today. At one point during Freedom Summer there was the creation of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Mississippi, that had an impact upon medical clinics throughout the world today. The creation of community centers in Mississippi spread throughout the South and the country.

SNCC was the beginning of many of these things. There was another time leading up to Freedom Summer, as it's called by some, the Mississippi Summer Project, as called by others. There was a great controversy over whether it should or should not be. And for many different reasons it prevailed that it should be, and it did come about, in 1964. I remember at the training sessions in Oxford, Ohio, people would ask some of us, "What should we expect when we get to Mississippi?" And some of the ones in the training session would tell people: "If you're going to Mississippi, you should be prepared for at least three things. You should be prepared to go to jail. You should be prepared to be beaten. And, ultimately, you should be prepared to be killed." All three of those are real possibilities which we found to be true even before the orientation sessions were over, because the word came that some of those that had left early, Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, had been killed in Nashoba County.

But SNCC, through all of its efforts, began to build that fire, and it grew larger and larger until in the midst of all of that growing, it finally melted completely through the iceberg where a little air came in; not enough to put it out, but just enough to rejuvenate the flames that were burning.

A lot of us know about a lot of the progress that was made during the 1964 Summer Project; however, there were some other things that were negative about the project. One of them was that it retarded the growth of individual initiatives on the part of many Mississippians. And as a result of that, it enabled someone to put a lid on the small hole that had been burned through the top of the iceberg. But because of the size of the flame, even though the lid was on top, it was not able to put it out because you saw where blacks were continuously registering people to vote and getting elected and participating in the democratic process. And that process continued to go on and lo and behold, Jesse Jackson in 1983 saw the lid and he reached down and grabbed the lid and he threw it off the little hole, and the fire immediately began to blaze out more vigorously once again. People knew that there were new signs of hope in a more unified national movement that was in the making.

And as he was running for President in 1984, as he began to pump oxygen through that hole, where he had raised the lid, people in Mississippi participated in the caucus process in Mississippi to the tune that they had never participated since the Freedom Democratic Party's effort in 1964 that gave life to the Mississippi movement. And through that effort of him running, we had a tremendous number of blacks that began to get elected as mayors of little towns. We had a tremendous impact as people began to get elected to the board of supervisors. We began to use the legal process to break down some of the barriers, changing the form of governments, getting people elected as councilmen, as aldermen. And we see us today continuously expanding those initial efforts. We begin to expand those efforts as we begin to elect blacks to larger cities as mayors such as Vicksburg, Mississippi. We expand the effort through electing black women as mayors of some of those smaller towns.

For those that may not know or understand, the removal of the literacy requirement for voting that was once in Mississippi was not just removing a requirement but actually a stripping of power, because before that literacy req~irement test was taken out of the process, white men in Mississippi, most of whom had less than an eighth-grade education, had the power and authority to say to well-educated blacks, including schoolteachers, doctors, and lawyers, that you don't have the knowledge of how to interpret a section of the Mississippi constitution, which is what you had to do to pass the requirement. So it was a transfer or a removal of power.

The thing that is most important is that we understand that the movement which encompasses many organizations of which SNCC was one, is still going on, was going on before SNCC, and will continue to go on in the future. And we as organizations, we as individuals in those organizations must understand that, and work to make sure we do our rightful part. If a people feel that it does not have a movement, that's very self-defeating. And we should make sure that we understand the fact that in a movement we do not have a leader but we have many, many leaders. That's the way it always has been and that's the way it will continuously be until and even after we completely bust apart and completely destroy this gigantic iceberg.

See Voter Registration & Direct Action in McComb MS for background & more information.
See also Mississippi Movement for web links.

Copyright © Hollis Watkins. 1988

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