They were out to peacefully protest the Supreme Court decision on Boynton v. Virginia. The decision rules that segregation was viewed as unconstitutional in matters of federal travel. Freedom Rides were quickly organized from Washington D.C. into the Deep South.
This was a common protest that dated back to boarding trains after Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. However, in the Sixties, Freedom Riders were met by violent mobs in Alabama.
These African-Americans were arrested without incident, many under laws that would be stricken down in court for violating the Equal Protection Clause of 1868.
These activists, though bloodied and beaten, boarded those buses and rode on into Mississippi in May 1961. When President Kennedy made a deal with the governors of Alabama and Mississippi, the violence ceased but the riders were arrested and jailed.
The facilities in Hinds County were filled, so any captured riders were immediately taken to the state prison at Parchman Farm.
Hezekiah Watkins was just 13 years old. Despite his mother's warning, he went down to the Greyhound Bus Station in Downtown Jackson to see the Freedom Riders arrive.
Pushed inside the station, he was immediately questioned by police. When he told the police he was from Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Watkins was charged as an "outside agitator." He would spend the next five harrowing days in Parchman on Death Row. He was later released after promising he would never be involved with the Civil Rights Movement again.
Watkins' mother saw a stirring sermon from Civil Rights activist James Bevel. Bevel, a Mississippi native, was in the Nashville Sit-In of 1960 and an organizer of the Freedom Rides in 1961.
Bevel was jailed after the Jackson incident but stayed pushing on with the nascent voter registration drives that would serve as models for Freedom Summer. Bevel asked Watkins' mother if Hezekiah could join their movement.
Watkins was instrumental in the movement from this moment forward. With these nonviolent protests as the catalyst for change, Watkins exhaustively devoted his life to the Civil Rights Movement for the years that followed.
Arrested 109 times, Watkins shared a jail cell with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1962, organized the Lanier High School protest of 1963 and became a Freedom Rider in 1964. In fact, Watkins has finally been recognized as the youngest Freedom Rider. Today, Watkins' life is on display at the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson - where he also is available to tell his story.
Hezekiah Watkins will be at TBONES Records & Cafe, 2101 Hardy St. signing copies of his autobiography "Pushing Forward" written with Petal native Andrea Ledwell at 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon, Dec. 14.