On Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, civil-rights icon Hollis Watkins Muhammad, 82, died peacefully at home with his wife Edna Watkins Muhammad at his side.
Muhammad was born on July 29, 1941, in Summitt, Miss., to sharecroppers John and Lena Watkins. In the 1960s, he became a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—a coalition of young Black college students that was dedicated to nonviolent, direct action tactics to fight racial segregation. Voter-registration campaigns were the primary focus for SNCC members in Mississippi, and their efforts helped propel the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On July 29, 1961, Muhammad and Curtis Hayes, a fellow 18-year-old who also attended SNCC-led workshops in nonviolent direct action, sat in at the local Woolworth’s in McComb, Miss. This sit-in was the first action of its kind in the area and served as a catalyst for the nonviolent movement in Pike County.
In 1989, Muhammad along with Leroy Johnson and Mike Sayer co-founded Southern Echo, a nonprofit organization focused on empowering marginalized and vulnerable communities throughout the Southern region. “Hollis never wavered in his work to fight for voting rights, equality, fairness and justice to advance opportunities for Black Americans,” Brenda Hyde, current deputy director at Southern Echo, said.
Muhammad, Sayer and Johnson learned redistricting and map-making from the late Henry Kirksey, one of the first two Black men elected to the Mississippi Legislature. Southern Echo also taught demography skills to its community leaders. As the father of Southern Echo, Muhammad and his staff are credited with engaging the white power structure at the local, county and state levels in Mississippi through the redistricting process. They opened the gates and helped Black elective officials gain more seats in public offices than any other state in the union from the 1990s into the 2000s.
I’ve personally witnessed Muhammad drive at night from Jackson, Miss., through Alabama, through Georgia and to South Carolina just so we could be on time for redistricting training. I quickly picked up his practical style of asking the audience questions as a way of engaging them. I also admired his practice of clean living and how he adhered to a strict kosher diet as a proud Muslim. Muhammad could physically outrun men half his age in his 70s!
‘I’m Gonna Keep On Marching To Freedom Land’
Hollis Watkins Muhammad was also a Civil Rights Movement singer who inspired people to risk their jobs and lives to change the ugly world in which they lived. He learned freedom songs as a teen and intentionally passed these songs on to many.
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around … I’m gonna’ keep on marching to freedom land.” Lyrics like these were components of Southern Echo training. “Over 100,000 people have learned the freedom songs taught through Echo trainings and residential schools in the Southeastern region of this nation,” Hyde said.
Muhammad continued to teach Movement songs well into his late 70s. I remember how he kept the songs alive when I was a community organizer for Southern Echo in the early 2000s. Hyde remembers the lyrics, “Ain’t scared of nobody … ‘cause I want my freedom,” and “Keep your eyes on the prize,” as songs that she and Southern Echo trainees loved singing.
Hyde, who was one of the first female interns for Southern Echo, recalled Muhammad giving her his brown jacket to cover her preppy-looking dress. “Hollis told me I could not come to work dressed preppy because it made the rest of the staff look like they didn’t work there,” Hyde said. “Secondly, he said he wanted workers to dress casually so that we would make residents who lived in marginalized communities feel comfortable.” She was the first female executive for Southern Echo and has faithfully worked there for more than 30 years, making her the longest-serving staff person in the organization.
Muhammad’s autobiography, “Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man,” co-written with Jackson State University Professor C. Liegh McInnis, tells the story of how his father purchased 120 acres of farmland in 1948 when he was 7 years old. The family farmed and roamed their land freely with great pride. During the weekend the children played games between their morning and evening chores.
Myra Bryant, who worked with Muhammad in the late 1980s at the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, said that “Hollis stood on the front lines as a voice for the voiceless and fought for social and economic justice.”
“He dedicated his life to the struggle,” she continued. “He stood with me through some of my darkest moments.”
“Some of the key principles I learned from Hollis were truth-telling, overcoming fear and putting community interest over self-interest,” Hyde said. She and all of the other mentees will continue to carry the teachings and legacy of Hollis Watkins Muhammad onward.
Jackson Memorial Funeral Home (1000 W. Woodrow Wilson Ave., Jackson) is handling Hollis Watkins Muhammad’s body. The viewing is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Funeral arrangements are at Tougaloo College Kroger Coliseum (500 W. County Line Road, Tougaloo) on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, at 11 a.m. The burial will be at Chisholm Mission AME Church (3859 Chisholm Drive, S.W. Summit).
Mail cards and donations to Edna Watkins Muhammad at P.O. Box 1056, Clinton, Miss., 39060.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.