In 1953, Baton Rouge became the site of the first large-scale civil rights bus boycott in the South.
The protest, in response to worsening conditions and the repeal of what had been a small victory, would influence bus boycotts for years and the model would be adopted for the 1955 Montgomery bus boycotts following the arrest of Rosa Parks.
A few years prior, Baton Rouge banned private bus routes as part of city’s bus company contract, including more than 40 private Black-driven buses.
City run busses not only required Black passengers to sit in the back and white passengers to sit in the front, but explicitly reserved seats for different races. That meant that black passengers, who made up 80% of the bus system’s ridership, often ended up standing even when there were seats available.
In response to these issues and a recent 50% increase in bus fare, Mt. Zion First Baptist Church Reverend T. J. Jemison made a complaint to city-council which passed an ordinance allowing passengers to take seats designated for other races if they were empty, filling up the bus from front-to-back or back-to-front depending on the race.
The ordinance did not sit well with white bus drivers union which protested the decision and went on strike for four days, according to BlackPast.com.
Not long after the strike began, Louisiana Attorney General Fred LeBlanc said city ordinance when against state segregation laws and therefore overturned.
After the reversal, a meeting at McKinley High School of Black residents lead to the decision of a city-wide bus boycott to start the next day.
Black riders carpooled or walked to work for denying the bus system much of its rider fare and eight days later Jemison announced a deal had been reached. A new city ordinance reduced the number of reserved seats, though still preserved the first two seats for whites and the wide last seat for Blacks.
The deal was controversial even among many Black residents who felt more could have been achieved.
Martin Luther King Jr. would later speak with Jemison about the boycott on a visit to Baton Rouge and adopt some of the strategies in later segregation protests.