The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Martha White, 1922—2021

Jun 21, 2021

Martha White, whose refusal to get off a “white only” bus seat sparked a massive bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1953, died on June 5 at the age of 99.

Martha White was born in 1922 in southern Mississippi, as one of the seven children of sharecroppers. Martha’s mother died when Martha was in her early teens, and she and some of her siblings were brought to Baton Rouge to live with relatives. After a marriage ended in divorce, she began to work as a housekeeper.

In 1953, the city of Baton Rouge increased the fare on city buses from 10 to 15 cents—a real hardship for the majority of the city’s black population, since one out of three black residents of Baton Rouge was unemployed, and most of those with a job earned low wages as laborers and domestic workers.

At the same time, there was already some agitation against segregation laws and for voting rights in Baton Rouge, organized mainly by the city’s black churches, educated black professionals and black World War II veterans, so the increase in bus fare and segregation on the buses were issues discussed in the black community.

It was against this background that, on June 15, 1953, Martha White got on a bus where the only seats available were those designated “white only.” Martha White, who walked miles every day to her bus stop and worked on her feet all day, sat down anyway. When the bus driver told her she was not allowed to sit there, White first got up, but she sat down again when other black passengers objected to the bus driver. Another black woman came and sat next to White in solidarity.

Cops came and threw the two women off the bus—which drew a quick reaction from the black population of Baton Rouge. At a mass meeting that night, participants decided to knock on doors all night and call on the black community to stay off the buses the next day.

The next morning, black people at bus stops turned their backs to approaching buses. Carpools were organized, where black people who owned cars picked up people needing a ride and took them where they wanted to go. Nightly meetings drew thousands of people, and $6,000 was raised in just two days to buy gas for the carpools.

After four days of the boycott, the manager of the bus company, 80% of whose riders were black people, said that a continuation of the boycott would mean that the bus company would have to cease operations. The city moved to settle the boycott, and black negotiators, led by Rev. T. J. Jemison, agreed to a compromise. Some restrictions of segregation on the buses were eased, but this settlement kept bus segregation in place, which many black people saw as a betrayal.

Nonetheless, the Baton Rouge bus boycott had set an example for future battles against legal segregation. Two years later, in December 1955, another bus boycott broke out in Montgomery, Alabama, following the arrest of Rosa Parks. The organizers of the bus boycott in Montgomery had studied the Baton Rouge boycott, and in particular how the carpools were organized. The Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted over a year and ended in the U.S. Supreme Court declaring bus segregation unconstitutional, is of course considered a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

While legal victories did not end centuries-old racism in the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement forced the U.S. ruling class to acknowledge the rights of black Americans as citizens. This was the result of the massive mobilization of millions of ordinary, working-class black Americans like Martha White.