JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – History was made at Parchman prison Tuesday when a historical marker was unveiled and a former Freedom Rider returned, this time, not as an inmate, but as a guest of honor.
”I dread coming here today,” said Hezekiah Watkins.
It has taken Watkins 62 years to confront what he describes as the worst day of his life, revisiting Cell Block 17 at Parchman Prison.
It’s where he and 328 other Freedom Riders were taken as punishment for protesting segregated bus and train terminals in Mississippi and across the Deep South.
Hezekiah Watkins said, ”I really wasn’t a Freedom Rider. I was just a 13-year-old boy who went to the bus station to look at the freedom riders; not to be one, I just wanted to see what a Freedom Rider looked like.”
A friend had pushed Watkins into the bus terminal in Jackson that day and he ended up spending at least 5 days in the notorious prison before then Governor Ross Barnett released him.
”So you have to remember that I was a 13-year-old boy who had not been exposed to anything. Had not been outside of my boundaries, which was my neighborhood. Didn’t know nothing about nothing,” said Watkins.
But time has a way of offering, at least, some semblance of healing and Watkins’ dread soon turned to joy.
The now 74-year-old was guest of honor at a ceremony unveiling the historic marker recognizing the Freedom Riders on Highway 49 West across from the front gate of Parchman.
Watkins also accepted a ceremonial key to his one-time cell and an apology from MDOC’s chief legal counsel.
So now, Watkins said his dread is no more.
”I feel much greater right now than I did when we drove through the gates,” said Watkins.
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