BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – When most people hear “bus boycott,” they think of Montgomery, Alabama. Not knowing that Baton Rouge paved the way for other bus boycotts around the country.
This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott and we’re highlighting the significance of this movement in Black history.
“The nation was in an uproar… all because of the war. So you got people going overseas, fighting for the country. But then you come back in the same country and you have no rights. You have no privileges,” said Rene Brown, pastor of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church.
During the civil rights movement, Black Americans refused to ride city buses due to segregated seating and unaffordable prices.
“The white would enter the bus upfront. The Blacks would enter in the back. And obviously, when you get somewhere in the middle you get into some confrontations,” said Adell Brown, an interim historian at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church.
In 1949, Rev. TJ Jemison became pastor of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church. The first and only Black church in downtown Baton Rouge at that time.
Jemison later developed a strategy that became the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. An eight-day-long event protesting the unjust bus system in 1953.
“And it had a greater impact than what they actually thought. And it actually did more to help the progress when it relates to city laws being changed,” said Rene.
During this time, all Black residents stayed off city buses. Instead, they organized a free carpool service to give people rides.
“Can you imagine in 1953 a whole dispatch system working with ladies and everybody involved in the community? Raising money, buying gas, using their cars, and actually dispatching and getting people to their point,” said Adell.
Rev. Jemison went in front of the city council, arguing the right for Black passengers to have open seating. Just like the white passengers who paid the same bus fare.
Organizers reached a compromise with city officials a lot sooner than expected.
“It doesn’t take long for them to get into a situation and say, ‘Oh, we want to have change,'” said Rene.
The bus boycott created a new transportation model that ended in Ordinance 222. Changing the segregated seating policy allowing people to ride on a “first come, first serve basis” and whites would have to give up their seats to a paying Black rider.
Although Jemison had success, many bus drivers disapproved of the change. Therefore, the ordinance didn’t go into effect until several months later.
“He was a good thinker. A strategic thinker. And so I think the rest was just history. He was able to motivate them and they followed him. I mean, they followed him,” said Rene.
What many people don’t know is the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott became the blueprint for the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama back in 1955. One of the largest civil rights protests led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Dr. Jemison did what he did here. Dr. King came over, met with him, talked with him, and said ‘okay tell us what you did. Tell us how you did it.’ And when he shared that with him, they then made some adjustments, and then they took it to Alabama to make it fit in Alabama.” said Rene.
Rene Brown, the current pastor of Mt. Zion First Baptist, says Church is the heartbeat of the Black community.
He says there was power in that generation of Black people coming together and rallying around the leadership of the congregation. Which he believes contributed to the success of the movement.
“The only thing that we had back then was the church. If you don’t have the Black church that speaks to the ills of society, the ills of society will continue to make us sick,” said Rene.
Adell Brown, interim historian of Mt. Zion First Baptist, says this movement became the gateway for desegregating other laws like lunch rooms and bathrooms.
“The unity, the ability of a people, to organize themselves around an issue to support it fully economically, physically, mentally, to solve a problem,” said Adell.
Rene says it’s been 70 years since the bus boycott. Now is not the time to forget, but to re-teach and reflect.
“Any person that does not know their history is bound to repeat it. So you have to celebrate it so people will know it has not always been like this,” said Rene.
If you want to learn more about Black history in Baton Rouge, there’s a civil rights trail marker at the Old State Capitol.