Louisiana Bus Boycott Marks Its Page in Civil Rights History

Times Staff Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The 84-year-old pastor toddled into the church lobby in a three-piece suit, sank into a leather armchair under a painting of the Last Supper, yawned and smiled, the satisfied look of a man whose legacy is finally secure.

The Rev. T.J. Jemison remembered how the creaky bus rumbled through Catfish Town, a downtown Baton Rouge district named for the fish that get stranded in puddles after the Mississippi River floods.

He remembered how, when the doors opened that steamy morning in 1953, no one got onboard. Instead, 50 years ago today, Jemison and other black leaders launched a boycott of the city bus system.

Two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a decade before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. articulated his dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the boycott is believed to have been the first organized, nonviolent protest in the South.

It is seen as a building block for what became the civil rights movement -- and it has been forgotten, by and large, until now.

Today, civic leaders and historians will gather at a conference here to mark the boycott's 50th anniversary. They will listen to lectures, hear from the boycott's few surviving organizers and, more than anything, set about securing its proper page in history.

"We're not trying to convince folks that this is the most important moment in civil rights, just that it has its place," said conference organizer Marc Sternberg.

"History is a continuum. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were incredibly courageous, but they stood on the shoulders of people who came before them. There was a beginning before Baton Rouge, and there was a beginning before that beginning too."

This one began amid the stately magnolias, the red-brick warehouses and the wrought-iron balconies of Louisiana's capital city, and it had its roots in a surprisingly progressive decision made on behalf of the black community by an all-white City Council.

Since the 1890s, the United States had operated under "separate but equal" laws, but in Baton Rouge -- and elsewhere -- many believed the doctrine was a sham. Blacks and whites were separate, perhaps, but not equal; certainly not on Baton Rouge buses.

So few seats were allotted for blacks, although they made up 78% of riders, that buses rumbling through the city were a curious sight: Black men and women, many of whom worked for white families all day, would stand in the aisle, although seats reserved for white passengers were empty.

In February 1953, the council approved an ordinance saying that although blacks still had to board from the back and whites could board from the front, the seats in the middle would be available on a first-come, first-serve basis. That angered white bus drivers, who went on strike.

On June 19, after Louisiana's attorney general declared the ordinance in violation of the state's segregation laws, the bus drivers went back to work.

"So we made a go of it," said Jemison, pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge and a former president of the National Baptist Convention.

That night, Jemison and other black leaders marched into the offices of a local radio station and urged the black community to boycott the buses.

For the next five days, leaders bought gasoline at wholesale cost -- about 28 cents a gallon -- to fuel 125 cars that followed the regular bus routes and took blacks to and from work.

Blacks stood at bus stops but would simply let the buses pass by, waiting for a car to pick them up instead.

Protesters say those were tense and dangerous days. Two crosses were burned in Jemison's front yard, and he surrounded himself with five shotgun-toting bodyguards.

"You have to remember, there were no blacks on the police force," said Willis Reed, 88, then the district manager of a black-owned insurance company.

"Most of the police were just looking for a reason to take out their sticks and beat the Negroes. But we decided that we had to do something."

By the third day, the Baton Rouge Bus Co. reported that it was losing $1,600 a day and would soon be out of business. On the night of June 23, as the City Council was preparing a new seating law thought to be a compromise, Jemison called off the boycott at a civic stadium jammed with 7,000 blacks. About 1,000 people are believed to have boycotted the buses.

By modern standards, the new rules didn't do much for the rights of blacks. They could sit almost anywhere, but the front two rows were still reserved for whites, and blacks still had to board from the back. Critics felt Jemison should have pushed for more concessions.

"We could have gone farther," Reed said. "We could have gotten more."

But Jemison points out that in 1953, segregation in Louisiana was rarely questioned by the vast majority of whites. It would be another year before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown vs. Board of Education, held that "separate but equal" public schools were "inherently unequal." That ruling helped launch the modern civil rights movement.

"We weren't trying to end segregation," Jemison said. "We were just trying to get people the right to sit down."

There were practical aspects to the settlement too, said Horatio Thompson, 88, a black business leader who owned two service stations at the time and sold thousands of gallons of gasoline at cost to support the boycott. After five days, the ride-share program was taking a toll. Many ride-share drivers, after ferrying passengers for eight hours, then had to work 12 hours in their own jobs.

"We understood that the settlement would lead to better things," Thompson said this week, sitting in a barber shop that now occupies one of the gas stations he built.

The boycott would have a far broader effect than just in the Baton Rouge area.

Months later, King, then a 25-year-old largely unknown preacher, came to Mount Zion to learn about the boycott -- its ride-share program and the use of radio to communicate with protesters.

King used Baton Rouge as the model for the famed Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, which began in December 1955, lasted for more than a year and gave momentum to the civil rights movement across the South.

The conference's young organizers marvel that when they were growing up here, they didn't learn about the local boycott in their classes on Louisiana history.

The city, they say, has a stubborn history of ignoring its tortuous race relations. That may change, however.

Ten public and private school teachers in Baton Rouge have been awarded grants to develop new curricula based on the boycott. The teachers are planning everything from oral history projects to interpretive dances based on the recollections of aging civil rights leaders.

"What will happen in the schools is breathtaking," said Ashley Shelton, a conference organizer and director of grant-making at the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, a philanthropic organization. "People are ready to talk about this. It bodes well for the city."

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