Part of the Mississippi Museum of Art monthly Art & Coffee series, held each first Saturday of the month at 10 AM.
Civil Rights veteran Hollis Watkins held an invisible rifle. He sang of the high-powered .30-06 Enfield used by Byron De La Beckwith to assassinate Medgar Evers outside his Jackson, Mississippi home in 1963. A group of fifty encircled Watkins in the gallery of Picturing Mississippi, 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise, on view at the Mississippi Museum of Art. “They laid Medgar Evers in his grave,” sang Watkins, projecting his voice upward and outward, toward the portrait of Medgar Evers painted by artist Jason Bouldin in 2013 to coincide with the 50th anniversary commemoration of the hero’s killing.
Hollis Watkins and Arvenna Hall, circa 1963, photograph by Matt Herron, crmvet.org
Watkins has been giving voice to the freedom fight since the 1960s, when he
joined Bob Moses and SNCC to register disenfranchised Mississippi voters and inspire young activists. In the Movement, music is a common refrain. In the context of civil disobedience and nonviolence, song serves as a weapon against fear.
Against the backdrop of Joseph Overstreet’s Justice, Faith, Hope, and Peace, spoken word artist and community organizer Monica Atkins clapped her hands and led the group in a rendition of “Everybody’s Got A Right to Live.”
The Civil Rights song, attributed to singer-songwriters Jimmy Collier and Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, was recorded for the Smithsonian in 1968 just after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Music is the easiest way to tell the story of what we’re trying to do,” Collier once said. “[Our] songs are one of the best tools for getting people together.” This history echoed against Overstreet’s artwork; it too was made immediately following the tragedy.
The chorus processed into the galleries of White Gold: Thomas Sayre, an immersive installation by artist Thomas Sayre meditating on the complexities of the southern cotton field. Watkins swayed and sang of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela – “Freedom come and apartheid go…” The global context was a reminder of an agricultural industry that sowed Mississippi society at home through a tangled web of forced labor and international markets abroad.
Watkins and Atkins passed the proverbial baton to two high school seniors from Jackson Public Schools’ Murrah High School, who performed an original composition called “Mother Nature.”
“We’ve been rivaling for too long,” rapped Jeremiah Henry. “Fighting for our rights to own the land that we grew up on…”
Then came Shamar Bronson. The student closed the circle, back to hate and a firearm. “Losing brothers to gun wounds / losing loved ones to these demons in costumes / I mean what can we do?
What can we do?
Wake up. Speak. Sing.