A Baton Rouge Story: 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott

BATON ROUGE, La (LOCAL 33) (FOX 44) - Baton Rouge is a city filled with a lot of history dating back to centuries.

When you hear "bus boycott" during the civil rights movement; most people think of the boycott in Montgomery back in 1955. However, before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; there was Reverend TJ Jemison and many others during the Baton Rouge bus boycott in 1953.

"We moved to make a change," said Johnnie Jones, attorney during the Baton Rouge bus boycott. "Not a change just for one situation, but for a change we thought the power of creation. What the lord had in mind."
Segregation was the law of the land and separation by race was a way of life. 

If you were white, you sat in the front. If you were black you were forced to sit in the back, and if all seats were occupied; African Americans were forced to stand.

"If you sat on the front seat of the bus; you may not make it home that day," said Niles Haymer, attorney for Haymer Law Firm. "We're talking about the time where Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi."

For blacks the choice to sit in the front, they say, was a choice to live or die.

"I couldn't rest," said Attorney Jones. "I couldn't rest. I just could never put up with it and I never did."

A plan to protest began despite the consequences.

"Two crosses were burned on the lawn at the house and the phone calls were, 'you keep this up we're going to kill you," said Ted Jemison Jr, son of Reverend TJ Jemison.

According to Ted Jemison Jr, Reverend Jemison was tired of watching "his people" suffer from the harsh treatment  of the city's bus company.

"He first approached the city council to officially say, 'this was not fair,'" said Jemison. "At that time a black man had never approached a city council for anything."

The council finally responded to the protest and passed a city's seating code allowing black riders to sit in the front under certain circumstances: Ordinance 222. However, the new law went unenforced.

Organizers then developed a new strategy: a boycott against the city bus company. The reverend asked all black residents to stay off of city buses and offered a free car lift service.

"It had a dispatch system," said Jemison. "We had gas stations and we had drivers by the hour so that anybody that needed a ride; they would get one."

These efforts financially affected the Baton Rouge Bus Company.

"Economics always gets someone's attention," said Michael McClanahan, NAACP State President of Baton Rouge. "If you really want to get my attention, mess with my money. When there was no one on the bus to ride; they were losing money. The management felt it as well as the bus drivers. We knew at some point in time it was going to pay off."

The boycott lasted only 8 days. City officials and protest organizers reached a compromise without bloodshed. Although not everyone was satisfied with the outcome, these efforts captured the attention of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"When he got to Baton Rouge, he wanted to know how was this successful," said Haymer. "We hadn't seen a movement this successful in the south. [The reverend] laid out the blueprint for him and he said you have to go after their pocket books."

Conversations between the two, inspired Dr. King to lead the historically known Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. It was the first large scale demonstration against segregation, mimicking the work done by Reverend Jemison and many others here in Baton Rouge.

Ted Jemison Jr has confirmed he is working on a film about his father's work.


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