Hollis Watkins inspires students with rousing keynote address

Hollis Watkins, a civil rights activist who co-founded and is now president of Southern Echo, Inc., delivered Geneseo's keynote lecture commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. in the College Union Ballroom on March 4.

Watkins began by cautioning against putting King on a pedestal. "It is extremely important for us to keep Dr. King alive, but it is also important for us to keep Dr. King in proper perspective," he said. "Many of our young people see him as being in a position that we can't reach … all of you can reach that level."

Watkins delineated three simple steps that anyone could follow to rise to King's preeminence. King mastered the English language, overcame fear and recovered from denial.

"Look around the world and see the things that need to be changed," he told listeners.

Watkins is the youngest of 12 born to sharecroppers in Lincoln County, Miss. As part of his presentation, Watkins relayed stories of injustice he had encountered in his past and described his efforts to rectify such injustices.

At 19, Watkins was the first Mississippi student to join the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in 1961. SNCC was a major contributor to the civil rights movement, coordinating students in non-violent protests. As a result of participating in such protests, Watkins spent much of his time during the movement in and out of jail.

Much of Watkins' work was aimed towards registering African Americans to vote as well as ending segregation. In 1990, he co-founded Southern Echo, a program working to develop leadership skills, education and training in rural Mississippi communities. Open to participants of all ages, Watkins noted that, "Where old people and young people work together, they make more progress."

The evening ended with Watkins leading the audience in a series of inspirational songs that the activists adjusted to fit their cause.

The audience was not left disappointed. "It's nice to see a full room like tonight; that's the true inspiration," sophomore Nick Lagrassa said. "Events like this leave me with my heart beating a little fast."