As part of a collaboration with the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, NolaVie spotlights entries from KnowLA.org — the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana, including unique events and people in our state’s history.
In honor of this year’s Martin Luther King Day, KnowLa.org and NolaVie look back at the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. Two years after the boycott, Dr. King conferred with Rev. T.J. Jemison about the tactics used in Baton Rouge.
In 1953 African Americans in Baton Rouge organized the first large-scale boycott of a southern city’s segregated bus system. When the leader of the boycott, Rev. T. J. Jemison, struck a deal with the city’s leadership after five days without gaining substantial improvements for black riders, many participants felt Jemison capitulated too quickly. However, the boycott made national headlines and inspired civil rights leaders across the South. Two and a half years later, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. conferred with Jemison about tactics used in Baton Rouge, and King applied those lessons when planning the bus boycott that ultimately defeated segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, and drew major media attention to the injustices of Jim Crow laws.
Baton Rouge’s black community had a particular grievance against the municipal bus service. In 1950 the financially stressed city bus company won an exclusive contract for service in Baton Rouge after successfully lobbying the city council to revoke the licenses of nearly forty competing African American–owned bus services that transported black residents from their neighborhoods to jobs and businesses. Three years later, the council approved a fare increase from ten to fifteen cents for the still-struggling bus company.
In 1953 African American residents of Baton Rouge faced daily reminders of the hold white supremacy had over their lives. One-third were unemployed, and most of those with jobs earned low wages as domestic workers or unskilled laborers. But several important factors made race relations in Baton Rouge different from other southern cities.
Just north of the city was Southern University, a nexus for African American political organization, legal education, and economic development. Adjacent to the university campus, the sizable black middle-class community of Scotlandville was made up of educated professionals, business owners, skilled laborers, industrial workers, and teachers, whose union status or employment with national corporations provided a modicum of security. In addition, African American veterans of World War II had organized a successful Negro Chamber of Commerce and voters’ leagues.
Baton Rouge also had the young Jemison, hired in 1949 as pastor of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church, the largest black church in Louisiana. His father was president of the National Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest and most prestigious African American organization, with more than six million members.
A New Order
By mid-February 1953, the same day the bus company had asked the city council for a fare increase, Jemison made a bold and unusual appearance before the all-white council. He appealed for the right of black passengers, who paid the same fare as whites, to sit down when seats were available.
One month later, with the bus company’s support, the city council unanimously approved Ordinance 222, which changed the segregated seating policy to a model already in place in some southern cities. Riders would fill the bus on a “first come, first served” basis, blacks from the back and whites from the front. Best of all for the bus company, buses with empty white sections would not have to pass up paying black riders. Bus drivers immediately received a directive about the new policy, but Ordinance 222 was not enforced for three months. The drivers refused to comply.
By mid-June black leaders met quietly with city leaders to appeal for action, and after receiving assurance that the law would be enforced, B. J. Stanley, head of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Jemison wrote and distributed a flier advising black riders of their rights and what to do if bus drivers or police officers challenged them. Still, many African American riders did not know the new policy was on the books.
Martha White, a twenty-three-year-old housekeeper, walked miles every day to her bus stop, stood on the bus, worked on her feet all day, and then had to endure the exhausting return trip home late in the evening.
On June 15, 1955, White’s bus was full of standing black passengers, and the “white” seats in the front were available. Worn out from her daily routine, White sat down behind the driver, explaining that she would get up if a white passenger boarded the bus. The driver ordered her out of the seat. Another African American woman sat down next to White and urged the other riders to stick together and remain on the bus. The driver threatened to have the women arrested and summoned police.
That morning Jemison had been cruising downtown streets, ready to test the ordinance himself. Seeing the police by the bus, he stopped to find out what was happening. When he informed the police officer that White was within her rights, the bus driver ejected Jemison from the bus.
H. D. Cauthen, the bus company manager, then arrived and ordered the driver to obey the city council’s ordinance, but the driver refused and Cauthen suspended him. The bus drivers’ union responded with a walkout. According to Adam Fairclough, a historian of the civil rights movement in Louisiana, the drivers “saw it as the African American community wielding political muscle and the white community giving in to that kind of political pressure.”
The drivers claimed in official statements to be looking out for the rights of white riders, but public opinion in the press criticized the drivers and supported the city council’s actions. “This silly strike is sending Louisiana back to the days of King Cotton,” wrote one reader. “This is a progressive state and I hope the company fires all the drivers who don’t want to comply with the laws of the people.”
After four days of striking, union leaders turned to State Attorney General Fred Leblanc, who overturned the ordinance, ruling that it violated Louisiana’s segregation laws. The June 18 decision that ended the drivers’ strike galvanized the African American community. Black leaders formed the United Defense League (UDL), with Jemison elected as president. The UDL board of directors included church leaders, officers of the First and Second Ward Voters Leagues, Esso (oil company) employees, and local educators.
At a packed meeting called that night, participants vowed to stay out all night, knocking on doors and informing community members to stay off the buses the next day. To spread the word quickly, UDL secretary Raymond Scott made an announcement that night on WLCS radio, the city’s most popular station—ironically, a white-owned radio station. Scott appealed to black residents to refuse to ride city buses until the law was changed, and he announced that a carpool service would be available the next morning.
By the first light of day, when city buses approached, black people waiting for rides would turn their backs. African Americans who owned automobiles would pick up anyone needing a ride and take them where they needed to go. The UDL’s nightly meetings during the boycott drew thousands of people, and organizers collected thousands of dollars to support the action. Gas station owner Horatio Thompson, the first black man in the South to operate an Esso service station franchise, did his part by selling gas to boycotters at cost.
Within four days, the bus company manager was quoted in the press as saying the boycott was a hundred percent effective. “A continuation of this loss,” he said, “will ultimately mean we will have to cease operations.”
The historian Fairclough notes, “The sheer fact that they could boycott the buses for a week and do this in a very disciplined way was an example, and it showed that white supremacy was … simply not going to be accepted by black people in the South. … A revelation in consciousness was evolving.”
Compromise or Capitulation?
With the Baton Rouge Bus Company facing financial collapse (more than 80 percent of its riders were African American), events took a dangerously serious turn. African American leaders and city council members were receiving death threats. As boycott counsel Johnnie Jones drove his car across a set of railroad tracks, two other drivers intentionally trapped him there, with a train approaching, but eventually released him.
On the evening of June 22 more than seven thousand African American citizens gathered in Baton Rouge’s municipal stadium. “We don’t have to ride the buses. There’s nothing wrong with our feet!” they shouted. “We’ll keep walking!”
On June 23 Jemison announced he had reached an agreement with the city council, and the boycott was over. The bus company would reduce the number of reserved “white” seats, but in exchange, the “first-come, first served” practice was ended, and black riders would have to remain standing even if seats in the whites-only area were available. Jemison’s acceptance of the compromise came as a complete surprise, even to UDL board members. Many in the black community felt betrayed by the deal.
Some participants interviewed more than fifty years later still expressed anger over the boycott’s abrupt end, insisting the protestors could have accomplished more, while others believed that, at the time, the white establishment was not ready to make further concessions. Furthermore, because they were engaging in the first large-scale public transit boycott, the protest leaders had no way to predict the white community’s response to a full-fledged challenge to segregation.
Jemison later stated that his personal ambitions outweighed the boycott’s potential consequences: “My father was president of the National Baptist Convention. I didn’t go to the end in desegregation. I stayed on the side where I could become president of the National Baptist Convention, which I did. I wasn’t trying to end segregation. We started the boycott simply to get seats for the people, and once we accomplished that, what else was there for us to get?”
Short-lived as it was, the Baton Rouge civil rights action nevertheless made national headlines. The New York Times declared, “Bus Boycott Effective,” and widely circulated African American newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier spread the news that twenty thousand black riders had boldly challenged segregation practices on Louisiana buses.
Many lessons learned in Baton Rouge were put to work in Montgomery and in subsequent bus boycotts around the country. The Baton Rouge action showed that direct, peaceful protest could be effective if it was well organized and the cause appealed universally to the black community.
One of the most important elements of the 1953 bus boycott was the emergence of religious leaders as protest organizers. Previously, much of the battle for civil rights had been waged in the courts, led by attorneys for the NAACP or unions. This boycott started from the grassroots and was led by a dynamic African American minister, imparting an air of righteousness to the struggle and conveying a kind of respectability on the protest that was afforded a greater degree of respect by whites. Furthermore, even though the threat of bloodshed existed, the boycott was resolved without violence.
The boycott’s most significant impact was perhaps psychological: it demonstrated that change was possible, and it served as a stepping-stone toward one of the most significant social revolutions in history.
This article was written by Independent Scholar Christina Melton for KnowLa, a NolaVie content partner.