Baton Rouge bus boycott
Local protestors' blueprint start of bus boycott two years before Montgomery
Published: Friday, February 25, 2005
Updated: Saturday, August 16, 2008 12:08
A group of determined blacks in Baton Rouge protested the injustices of the city's transit system in 1953, approximately three years before the renowned Montgomery Bus Boycott and orchestrated America's first large-scale boycott.
Two and a half years before Rosa Parks' weariness spearheaded the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, Reverend T.J. Jemison, along with Hazel Freeman and Willis Reed spearheaded their own movement against the Baton Rouge bus system.
Martha White, a native of Woodville, Miss., was on her way to work that June morning in 1953. As she boarded the crowded bus she realized that there was only one seat left located in the "White Only" section directly behind the bus driver.
"I was tired. I looked at the seat and I sat down," White said.
After being told to get up from her seat, White did so. Then, some of the black individuals on the bus laughed and made a mockery of White, as she sat back down.
The bus driver admonished White again, stopped the bus and called the police. It was then that Reverend T.J. Jemison intervened and kept White from being arrested.
"It seemed like every police in town was there and the head of the Bus Commission," White said. "I vowed never to get back on the bus."
Shortly thereafter, a bulletin was made on the radio asking all the Blacks in Baton Rouge to meet at McKinley High School. With such a large turnout at this meeting, a second meeting had to be held at Memorial Stadium, off of Interstate Highway 10 to accommodate everyone.
Johnnie A. Jones, Sr., a Southern University undergraduate and a 1953 Law School graduate, was the primary attorney on the case. A native of West Feliciana Parish, he was contacted personally by Reverend Jemison to be part of the boycott.
"I did not know Jemison or Ms. White personally when this began. I had just graduated from Law School," Jones said. "When I was contacted to be on the case I agreed and it was the first case I ever had."
Just before this time, in the early 1950s, black owned buses such as Blue Goose Bus, Jelly Bean and others, were declared illegal in the city of Baton Rouge. By January 1953, bus fares were raised from 10 to 15 cents.
Due to Reverend Jemison's early convictions to city council members about the injustices of the bus system, Ordinance 222 was passed.
This decree stated that blacks could fill up seats on the bus from the back to the front and whites could fill any seats. It was in effect by March 19, 1953, but was ignored by citizens.
Although the boycott lasted eight days, the black residents of Louisiana's capital came together and their voices were heard. Invaluable lessons were learned and the struggle for equality began.
In June 1953, Ordinance Number 251 was passed. The compromise stated that all people could sit on the bus, however the first two seats on any bus were reserved for whites, and the last two seats for blacks.
People of any color could sit in between. In September 1953, District Court Judge Holcombe dismissed the case. Jemison did not appeal the decision.
"The United Defense League was prepared to proceed with the lawsuit and I prepared it to go to court," Jones said. "Jemison did not want the case to go to Federal Court because he believed that the people of Baton Rouge would change their minds and eliminate the problems of segregation together."