64 Parishes

Baton Rouge Bus Boycott

The Baton Rouge Bus Boycott of June 1953 lasted eight days and became a model for organizers of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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Baton Rouge Bus Boycott

Ernest Ritchie

During the 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge, the African American community organized free carpools, enabling protestors to go about their daily business while simultaneously showing they would no longer accept second-class citizenship.

How did the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott influence the larger Civil Rights Movement? 

In 1953 Black citizens in Baton Rouge organized the first large-scale boycott of a southern city’s segregated bus system. The boycott lasted for eight days. The boycott made national headlines and inspired civil rights leaders across the South. Two and a half years later, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke with Reverend T. J. Jemison about tactics used in Baton Rouge. King used those lessons when planning the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which drew major media attention to the injustices of Jim Crow laws. 

How were racial relations different in Baton Rouge from other places in the South?  

Black citizens in Baton Rouge were constantly reminded of their position in society. One-third of them were unemployed in 1953. Most of those with jobs earned low wages as domestic workers or unskilled laborers. But several important factors made race relations in Baton Rouge different from other southern cities. Just north of the city was Southern University, which was a center for Black political organization, legal education, and economic development. Next to the university campus was a large Black middle-class community named Scotlandville. Many Scotlandville residents were employed in federal jobs as postal workers or by multinational oil and gas companies based outside of the South. These factors gave Scotlandville residents financial independence and some degree of job protection. In addition, Black World War II veterans had organized a successful Negro Chamber of Commerce and voters’ leagues in Baton Rouge. The city was also home to Rev. T. J. Jemison, a young civil rights leader who was hired in 1949 as the pastor of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church, the largest Black church in Louisiana. His father was president of the National Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest and most prestigious Black organization, with more than six million members. 

Why did civil rights leaders in Baton Rouge choose to protest the bus system?  

Three years before the boycott, Baton Rogue’s Black community was not happy with the city’s bus service. In 1950, when the city bus company won an exclusive contract for service in Baton Rouge, nearly forty Black-owned bus companies that had previously provided transportation to Black residents were shut down. Three years later the city council approved a 50 percent fare increase, from ten to fifteen cents, for the city bus company. 

Baton Rouge buses were segregated. The first ten rows were reserved for white passengers, even though Black people made up 80 percent of riders. In February 1953 Rev. Jemison made a bold and unusual appearance before the all-white Baton Rouge City Council. Jemison argued that it was unfair to force Black riders to stand in the back of the bus while the seats in the front remained empty. He asked to allow Black passengers to sit down when seats were available. One month later, with the bus company’s support, the city council unanimously approved Ordinance 222, which changed the segregated seating policy to a model already in place in some southern cities. Riders would fill the bus on a “first come, first served” basis, Black riders from the back and white riders from the front. However, bus drivers refused to follow the new rule, and many Black riders did not know about the new policy. 

Martha White, a twenty-three-year-old housekeeper, walked miles to her bus stop every day. She stood on the bus in the morning, worked on her feet all day, and then had to endure the exhausting trip home late in the evening. On June 15, 1953, White’s bus was full of standing Black passengers. The “white” seats in the front were available. Worn out from her day, White sat down behind the driver. She explained to the driver that she would get up if a white passenger boarded the bus. The driver ordered her out of the seat. Another Black woman sat down next to White. The driver stopped the bus and called the police to have the women arrested. 

Jemison was driving by and saw the bus pulled over by the police, and he stopped to find out what was happening. When he told the police officer that White was within her rights, the bus driver ejected Jemison from the bus. The bus company’s manager H. D. Cauthen then arrived and ordered the driver to obey the city council’s ordinance. The driver refused, and Cauthen suspended him. The bus drivers’ union responded with a four-day strike. According to Adam Fairclough, a historian of Louisiana’s Civil Rights Movement, the drivers “saw it as the African American community wielding political muscle and the white community giving in to that kind of political pressure.” 

The drivers claimed they were looking out for the rights of white riders. However, public opinion in the press criticized the drivers and supported the city council’s actions. “This silly strike is sending Louisiana back to the days of King Cotton,” wrote one newspaper reader, referring to a time when many Black people were dehumanized as enslaved laborers for the state’s plantation economy. “This is a progressive state, and I hope the company fires all the drivers who don’t want to comply with the laws of the people.” 

State Attorney General Fred Leblanc overturned the ordinance that allowed Black passengers to sit in white seats. He ruled that it violated Louisiana’s segregation laws. In response, Black leaders formed the United Defense League (UDL) and elected Jemison as president. The UDL board of directors included church leaders, officers of the First and Second Ward Voters Leagues, Esso (oil company) employees, and local educators. 

How did civil rights leaders organize the bus boycott? 

The UDL got to work spreading the word about the boycott. The night before the boycott began, volunteers knocked on doors and told members of the Black community to stay off buses the next day. UDL secretary Raymond Scott made an announcement that night on WLCS radio, the city’s most popular station. Scott asked Black residents to refuse to ride city buses until the law was changed. He announced that a carpool service would be available the next morning. 

The next day, when city buses approached, Black people waiting for rides turned their backs. Black people who owned automobiles followed behind the buses and picked up anyone needing a ride. The UDL’s nightly meetings during the boycott drew thousands of people. Organizers collected thousands of dollars to support the action. Gas station owner Horatio Thompson, the first Black man in the South to operate an Esso service station franchise, gave discounted gas to boycotters. 

The Baton Rouge Bus Company was in serious financial trouble. Eighty percent of the bus company’s riders were Black, and the boycott was crippling business. Within four days, the bus company manager publicly said the boycott was working. “A continuation of this loss,” he said, “will ultimately mean we will have to cease operations.” 

Those supporting and participating in the boycott faced danger. Some Black leaders and city council members received death threats. Boycott counsel Johnnie Jones was intentionally trapped on a set of railroad tracks in his car by two other cars. Luckily, the other drivers released him, and he was not hurt.  

Still, boycotters were determined to demand change. On the evening of June 22, more than seven thousand Black citizens gathered in Baton Rouge’s municipal stadium. “We don’t have to ride the buses. There’s nothing wrong with our feet!” they shouted. “We’ll keep walking!” 

What were the results of the Baton Rouge bus boycott? 

On June 23, Jemison announced he had reached an agreement with the city council and that the boycott was over. On June 24, the council passed Ordinance 251, which stated that the bus company would reduce the number of reserved seats for whites. However, black riders would have to remain standing even if seats in the whites-only area were available. Jemison’s acceptance of the compromise came as a complete surprise. Many in the Black community felt betrayed by the deal. 

Some participants interviewed more than fifty years later still expressed anger over the boycott’s end, believing more could have been accomplished. Other protest leaders understood that the boycott’s leaders had no way to predict the white community’s response to a full-fledged challenge to segregation. Jemison later stated that he “wasn’t trying to end segregation. We started the boycott simply to get seats for the people, and once we accomplished that, what else was there for us to get?” 

The Baton Rouge Bus Boycott made national headlines. A New York Times headline declared, “Bus Boycott Effective.” Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier spread the news that twenty thousand Black riders had boldly challenged segregation practices on Louisiana buses. 

Many lessons learned in Baton Rouge were put to work in Montgomery, Alabama, and in later bus boycotts around the country. The Baton Rouge action showed that direct, peaceful protest could be effective. One of the most important elements of the 1953 bus boycott was the role of religious leaders as protest organizers. Previously much of the battle for civil rights was led by lawyers for the NAACP or unions. The boycott’s most significant impact was perhaps that it demonstrated that change was possible.