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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

The Watkins Family Associated With Known "Criminals"

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on August 28, 2022

Most readers know that I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s and 60s. Many of the people I looked up to were community leaders who had criminal records in Alabama's local, state, and federal criminal justice systems.

My childhood church pastor, Sunday School teacher, and Baptist Training Union instructor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King had an extensive arrest record in Montgomery and elsewhere in the South. The state of Alabama indicted Dr. King on felony tax evasion charges.

In 1963, the FBI, which often collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement agencies, tried to force Dr King into committing suicide before he traveled to Stockholm, Sweden to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. King ignored the Bureau and its misguided vindictiveness.

Rosa Parks was one of my mother's best friends. Ms. Parks visited our house quite often. My parents enjoyed her company. She was a very classy woman.

Ms. Parks had a criminal record, as well. Ms. Parks became a "criminal" when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. Photos of Ms. Parks being booked after her arrest and her mug shot are featured with this article.

My brother, Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., was Ms. Parks' heart surgeon. He, too, associated with many known "criminals," all of whom were arrested for protesting racial segregation and discrimination in American society and throughout Africa.

Levi, Jr. also developed personal relationships with Nelson Mandela and his second wife, Winnie. Mandela was a convicted felon who spent 27 years in South African prisons. Winnie Mandela was convicted of felony crimes, as well.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Maggie Bozeman, and Julia Wilder were also labeled as "criminals." I loved these "criminals." They had more courage than you can find in many women and men today.

In 1963, Hamer was arrested and brutally beaten by local police and jail trustees (at the direction of the police) for her spirited civil rights activism in Mississippi. In the early 1980s, Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder were imprisoned for simply registering blacks to vote in Pickens County, Alabama.

Joseph Cole was the SCLC Chapter president in Gadsden, Alabama. He became a "criminal" and was imprisoned in the early 1980s after his lawsuits desegregated the all-white Gadsden, Alabama fire, police, and civil service departments for the city.

Mr. Cole also fought and stopped the police killing of innocent, unarmed, young black men in Gadsden after the death of Collis Madden in 1978. Madden died in a hail of 40 to 50 bullets during a routine traffic stop by Gadsden police.

My list of "criminal" associates is long and distinguished. I felt privileged as a child and young adult to be in their midst. However, all of them were despised by the ruling class of their day. They all went to jail on trumped up charges.

Looking back on my life, it seems like I was inspired as a young man by the men and women who were viewed by white society in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s as "criminals," "trouble-makers," "outside agitators," and "thugs."

So be it!

In this photo, my church pastor, Sunday school teacher and BTU instructor is arrested by Montgomery, Alabama police officers for challenging the city's laws on racial segregation in the 1950s. Today, Dr. King is the only non-U.S. President who has a memorial dedicated to him on the National Mall in Washington.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who is one of my personal heroes was constantly arrested and jailed by local and state officials in Southern states. In this picture, Dr. King is once again booked into a jail on bogus criminal charges.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was booked into the Birmingham City Jail as a "criminal". This is his mugshot in 1963. This jail is where he wrote his famous letter, "Letter from Birmingham Jail". This is the same year that the FBI tried to force Dr. King into committing suicide before King flew to Stockholm, Sweden to accept his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ms. Rosa Parks was the mother of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In this photograph, she is being booked into the Montgomery City Jail in 1955 because she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger.

Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist during the 1950s. She refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger and this act of defiance started the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Ms. Parks was a close friend of the Watkins Family.

Ms. Rosa Parks loved visiting with Lillian Watkins (front row. left) and Dr. Levi Watkins, Sr. at the Watkins family home. In this photo, she was accompanied by my sister, Emma Pearl Watkins (second row, right) and Elaine Steel.

When Donald Watkins. Jr. (left) and Light Watkins (right) were teenagers, I introduced them to Ms. Parks. Their civil rights activism can be traced back to this introduction.

Young teenager Drew Watkins with Rosa Parks

Nelsen Mandela was a civil rights attorney in South Africa in the 1950s and 60s. The all-white South African government charged Mandela and his 19 compatriots with sabotage, treason and violent conspiracy. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, including 18 years in solitary confinement. After leaving prison, Mandela became the first black African president of South African. He was a Watkins' family friend.

Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer was the Mississippi field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1963, she was arrested for attempting to eat at a segregated restaurant. Once she was jailed, she was held down and beaten with a blackjack until she was almost killed. Upon her release from jail, Ms. Hamer needed more than a month to recuperate from the beatings and never fully recovered.

Julia Wilder (left) and Maggie Bozeman (right) led the voter registration effort in Pickens County, Alabama during the 1970s and 80s. State officials charged them with trumped up voter fraud charges and imprisoned both women in the state penitentiary. In 1984 a federal judge threw out their convictions.

Joseph L. Cole is a civil rights icon whose lawsuits desegregated the city of Gadsden's all-white police, fire and civil service departments. Federal officials imprisoned Cole on a bogus charge of misapplying federal grant funds.

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