NIAGARA FALLS – Hezekiah Watkins was 13 when he spent three days on Mississippi’s death row after being arrested at a bus station protest in 1961.
Fred Anderson was 14 when he spent 22 days in jail in Albany, Ga., for being on buses that Jim Crow laws said had to separate whites and blacks.
While imprisoned, the men were abused and beaten, never sure if they’d survive those jails.
The pair were among hundreds known as Freedom Riders, who rode interstate buses to challenge racial segregation in the American South.
“I often think of my children and when I tell them about the struggle, they said, ‘There’s no way I could have gone through that,’ ” Watkins said. “But you had to.”
Watkins, 67, and Anderson, 68, are among four activists who were on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the 1960s who will be participating in a panel discussion at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Performing Arts Center at Niagara Falls High School, 4455 Porter Road. The program, which is free and open to the public, is part of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration at the Falls district to mark the famed civil rights leader’s birthday.
Along with Watkins and Anderson, the panelists include Jesse James Davis, who was arrested at the same 1961 sit-in in Jackson where Watkins was arrested and later became an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, and Barbara Bowie, who is Davis’ sister. She is the founder and executive director of the Dr. J.R. Bowie III Scholarship Foundation in Texas aimed at providing after-school programs and the arts to young people.
The group on Wednesday toured Underground Railroad sites in Western New York, including Michigan Street Baptist Church and the Nash House in Buffalo and Murphy Orchards in Burt. They also visited the Colored Musicians Club, the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University, along with other sites in Buffalo, Lewiston and the Falls.
At the Castellani, they saw leg shackles from the early 1800s actually used on slaves. They also heard about how Niagara Falls was often the last place slaves stopped before heading for freedom in Canada.
Watkins, who was born in Jackson, Miss., was arrested more than 100 times challenging segregation and once shared a jail cell with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Jackson. Watkins wants to share his stories and those of others who had to fight for civil rights. Everybody knows the names of prominent figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, but there were hundreds of other “unsung heroes,” he said.
“I’m here to try to tell the story of the fallen Freedom Riders as well,” Watkins said. “Those are the ones who have been forgotten.”