John D. Watkins, local lawyer and civil rights activist, dies at 82

John D. Watkins, a lawyer and civil rights activist, has died.

John D. Watkins, a lawyer and civil rights activist most remembered for orchestrating a visit to Augusta by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 12 days before his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., died at his home July 4. He was 82.

His death is a reminder of a precious generation of social heroes who are now dying out, said Paine College historian Mallory Millender.

“He’s part of a dying era, there’s no question about that,” Millender said. “There are not many people of that era left.”

In his legal work, Watkins partnered with attorney Jack Ruffin to desegregate the Richmond County School System in the 1960s, according to his obituary. He later was asked by King on short notice to arrange an Augusta meeting that was held at Beulah Grove Baptist church in 1968.

Watkins wrote a book about the experience titled King’s Last Visit to Augusta.

Millender said Watkins was brave to arrange King’s visit because many black churches and leaders at the time were wary of being associated with such a revered yet controversial figure.

“It was very hard for him to find a venue for Dr. King after Dr. King had agreed to come,” Millender said. “Just the fact that he brought him here was very important.”

As a civil rights leader, Watkins was also chosen to wait on the airport tarmac when President Lyndon Johnson visited the city before signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Watkins was born in Newberry, S.C., on June 21, 1930. He graduated with honors from Savannah State College, where he sang in the choir and was involved in Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

Watkins served in the Army and fought in the Korean War. He graduated from Howard University School of Law after his service.

In 2000, the Georgia Supreme Court disbarred Watkins on 10 ethics violations, including dishonesty and charging excessive fees. Watkins denied the charges but did not appeal the decision, later stating, “I want out of this business – it’s cutthroat,” according to an article in The Augusta Chronicle.

Friends who knew the lawyer said he had a strong, confident personality. Like most attorneys, he stood his ground in conversations and debates, said Augusta businessman James Kendrick.

But Kendrick’s best memories of his friend will be those from the golf course.

“He always won,” Kendrick said.

The two would often play at Forest Hills Golf Club or the Augusta Municipal Golf Course, and Watkins would always keep them entertained.

“John was a very spirited fellow who had a strong passion for this community,” Kendrick said. “He gave freely of himself and his resources to this community. He could be a lot of fun just to sit around and talk with. He had a strong personality, and pretty much what you saw was what you got.”

A memorial service to honor Watkins is scheduled 11 a.m. July 21 at Belle-Terrace United Presbyterian Church, 2454 Golden Camp Road.

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