The Spark

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

T.J. Jemison, Leader of 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott

Dec 9, 2013

T.J. Jemison, one of the leaders of the 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has died at the age of 95.

The Baton Rouge bus boycott is not as well-known as the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, but it played a pivotal role.

As in other cities in the South, buses were segregated in Baton Rouge in 1953. Black passengers were not allowed to sit in the white front section, even though 80 percent of the bus riders were black. Jemison, a Baptist minister, said that he would watch women who had cooked and cleaned in houses of white folks all day having to stand up in the back on the long bus ride home, while half the seats were empty.

When attempts to change city segregation laws were ruled unconstitutional by the State of Louisiana, that very day, Jemison and Raymond Scott, a black tailor, announced on the radio that a boycott of the bus system would begin the next morning.

By the end of the following day, no black passengers were riding the buses. Some walked to work and others used free rides organized by the United Defense League (UDL), the organization that led the boycott.

Faced with the open threat of violence from the police and the Ku Klux Klan, the protesters organized armed guards. The whole black community stood behind the boycott. Thousands of people attended nightly meetings called by the UDL, where money was collected to pay for the gas for the carpool system. The crowds grew so large that, on the third day of the boycott, the meeting was held at the Memorial Stadium.

After eight days, the city establishment offered a “compromise”: only the first two seats on a bus would still be reserved for white people, although black passengers would still not be allowed to sit in front of a white passenger. Insisting that segregation be done away with altogether, many protesters continued the boycott, even though the UDL decided to accept the offer and called the boycott off.

The Baton Rouge bus boycott officially lasted only eight days, and did not end bus segregation. But the fact that black residents of Baton Rouge were able to stand together against Klan terror helped to open the door to what became a massive resistance movement against legal segregation in the 1950s and ’60s.