A pivotal protest that influenced MLK.
A pivotal protest that influenced MLK.

“We’ll Keep Walking”: The Baton Rouge Bus Boycott of 1953

by Christina Melton

 

It was a hot sticky night in June 1953, and more than 7,000 African-American citizens gathered in Baton Rouge’s municipal stadium. “We don’t have to ride the buses. There’s nothing wrong with our feet!” shouted the crowd. “We’ll keep walking!” In the preceding six days, they had brought the Baton Rouge Bus Company to the brink of bankruptcy.

Led by a handful of determined, young black men and women, the gathering had mobilized the entire African-American community in Louisiana’s capital city to stage the nation’s first large-scale bus boycott challenging practices of segregation. Most significantly, this was happening in the Deep South a year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck a blow against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education and more than three years before Martin Luther King Jr. emerged to lead the more famous bus boycott in Montgomery.

Yet rather than continue the successful protest, the elected leader of the group, Reverend T.J. Jemison, struck a deal with the city’s leadership to end the boycott without gaining substantial improvements for black riders. The deal announced at the mass meeting that night was met with shock and indignation from the crowd.

“They were going to protest Reverend Jemison, because they were ready for change, and they could see a change coming and this was the beginning of it,” recalls boycotter Hazel Freeman.

The thousands of people gathered that night were not the only ones inspired by this show of solidarity. With headlines like, “Bus Boycott Effective” on the pages of the New York Times, and widely circulated African-American newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier reporting that 20,000 black riders were boldly challenging segregation practices on Louisiana buses, a new mindset was taking shape.

“The Baton Rouge bus boycott was like a call in the dark,” says Rosa Parks’ biographer and historian Douglas Brinkley. “Mrs. Parks told me she was completely captivated by what happened in Baton Rouge. She was part of the underground civil rights circuit in the South. They were all in awe of what was happening in Baton Rouge.”

“The Baton Rouge bus boycott stands in history, truly, as the template for what’s later going to occur and make international headlines in the Montgomery bus boycott,” says Juan Williams, civil rights historian and former correspondent for National Public Radio. “This is a fact attested to by the individuals involved, in specific, Martin Luther King Jr.”

More than 50 years later, the events provide a unique snapshot of Louisiana race relations in the post World War II, but pre-Brown era, before moderates on issues involving race became marginalized, before virulent racists became entrenched and emboldened and before the formal indoctrination of the Civil Rights Movement’s strategy of “non-violence.”

In 1953, African Americans made up 70 percent of the Baton Rouge Bus Company’s business, but like everywhere else in the Jim Crow South, black riders were restricted to the “colored” section of buses and were often forced to stand over vacant seats. These indignities were familiar to African-American Louisianians, but so was a legacy of protest against institutional segregation.

In 1892, Homer Plessy, a light-skinned descendent of free blacks in New Orleans, boarded a train for Covington, Louisiana, and sat in the “white” section in a planned challenge to segregation. Ironically, his arrest and the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision that followed, codified the doctrine of “separate but equal” across the nation for more than half a century.

“It was unequal facilities for black people as compared to white people and I was aware of that,” recalls Lewis Doherty, who in 1952, at the age of 26 was newly elected to the Baton Rouge City Council. “At the time, the law, the history and the culture were one of segregation. It was just something that was understood, not questioned.”

Long-simmering resentment

The black community of Baton Rouge had a particular grievance against the city’s bus service. In 1950, the financially struggling city bus company requested an exclusive contract for bus service in the city. The city council responded by revoking the licenses of nearly 40 competing African American owned bus services that transported black residents from their neighborhoods to jobs and businesses within the city. Three years later, the still-struggling bus company approached the council again to request a fare increase from 10 cents to 15 cents. “The bus company was always struggling, and the city couldn’t afford to take it over,” says Doherty. The increase was approved.

In 1953, African-American Baton Rouge residents faced daily reminders of the hold white supremacy had over their lives. One third were unemployed, and most of those with jobs worked as domestic or low-paying unskilled labor. But, there were also important factors that made race relations in Baton Rouge different from other Southern cities.

Just north of the city was the African-American community of Scotlandville and Southern University, a nexus of political organization, legal education and economic development throughout the state.

Scotlandville had a sizable black middle class, made up of educated professionals, business owners, skilled laborers, industrial workers and teachers, whose union status or employment with national corporations provided a modicum of security. New Jersey-based Esso-Standard Oil was not only the backbone of the local economy, but it also employed or did business with several of the community’s leaders, including Horatio Thompson, the first black man in the South to operate an Esso service-station franchise.

During World War II, Baton Rouge exploded with economic growth, fueled by the oil and gas industry. To build on this momentum, many local leaders saw political and social stability as a key to luring outside business. While some city leaders relied on intimidation to maintain orderly race relations, fairer-minded leaders felt making modest “concessions” could ease tensions with African Americans who wanted more from city government. Ironically, white leaders often felt these changes could be made within the confines of systemic segregation.

Still, beginning in the late 1920s, political conditions for African Americans had slowly begun to improve in Louisiana. Under Governor Huey Long’s populist programs, the state had become one of the more progressive places in the South for African Americans to live and work. Years later, when Earl Long became governor in 1948, there were only 7,000 black Louisianians registered to vote. “Uncle Earl” saw the opportunity to add thousands of new supporters to voting rolls. When he left office in 1952, there were 110,000 blacks registered to vote, by far the highest total of any state in the South, thirteen years before the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A call for change

Much of the credit for that increase is due to African-American veterans of World War II, who returned to Louisiana, led grassroots efforts to register voters, and organized the push for change at home. Young veteran Willis Reed had started both the successful Negro Chamber of Commerce and the First Ward Voters League in the North Baton Rouge area to register voters. “I had to go by people’s houses,“ he says of voter-registration drives, “not ask them to go down, but carry them down there, and take them inside the office, because some of them were afraid.”

In Scotlandville, D-Day veteran and Southern University Law School graduate Johnnie Jones and the Second Ward Voter’s League would draw up sample ballots with chosen candidates. “At three o’clock in the morning, we’d start going house to house to pass these ballots out, and our people would vote those ballots,” he recalls. Hazel Freeman, former Secretary of the Second Ward Voters League, noted that “of course, once blacks started voting, whites needed our votes, and that brought a lot of attention.”

As a candidate in 1952 for City Council, Lewis Doherty recalls meeting with local black church leaders. “We certainly made an effort to secure their votes. They could make a difference in the balance of power, where they voted. But on the other hand, they weren’t part of the official power structure.” Baton Rouge’s African-American community constituted more than 10 percent of the vote, enough to sway close elections.

Finally, Baton Rouge had the young Reverend T. J. Jemison, the newly hired pastor of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church, the largest black church in Louisiana. As a newcomer to Baton Rouge in 1949, he was already well-known in religious circles. His father was president of the National Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest and most prestigious African-American organization, boasting more than six million members. “We had a lot of powerful black people,” recalls Hazel Freeman, “but the others had not had the courage and the guts to come forward. Reverend Jemison came here a young man, very bold, and others joined him.”

By mid-February 1953, the same day the bus company had asked the City Council for a fare increase, Jemison made a bold and unusual appearance before the all white council.

“I spoke to them in brotherly terms,” Jemison recalls, “and said to them that I thought that since Negroes were paying the fare, the same fare that our white friends and residents were paying, that we should have the right to sit down. That’s no more than right.”

One month later, with the full support of the bus company and without noted opposition, the city council unanimously approved Ordinance 222. The new measure 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, blacks from the back and whites from the front. Best of all for the bus company, buses with empty white sections would not have to pass up paying black riders.

“I think the council as a whole, and I can’t speak for all of them, but I think the majority of them were like myself. They wanted to work out some compromise,” says Doherty. “In this particular case I felt it was only fair where people had paid their fare and there were seats available, that they could sit down and take those seats.”

The bus company immediately issued a directive to its drivers about the new policy, but Ordinance 222 was not enforced for three months. The drivers refused to comply.

By mid-June, black leaders met quietly with city leaders to appeal for action, and after feeling they had received assurance the law would be enforced, B.J. Stanley, the head of the local NAACP, and Reverend Jemison wrote and distributed a flier advising black riders of their rights: “If the driver tells you, you can’t sit in the front of the bus, quote the law to him and don’t move. If he calls the police and the police tell you to move, quote the law to him. If he insists, don’t resist arrest, but get his name or number so that he can be referred to the proper authorities.” Still, many African-American riders did not know the new policy was on the books.

Twenty-three year old housekeeper Martha White recalls she “never knew what a chair looked like” in those days, walking miles to and from the bus stop, standing on the bus then working on her feet all day, only to return late in the evening.

“That day, I was just wore out,” she recalls. The bus was full of standing black passengers and the “white” seats in the front were available.

Martha White sat down behind the driver explaining that she would get up if a white passenger boarded the bus. The driver ordered her out of the seat. At the same time, another woman White remembers only as “Pearl” sat down next to her and told the other riders, “Everybody’s gonna stick together this morning.” Pearl encouraged them. “Nobody gonna get off of this bus. And we’re gonna stick together.” The driver threatened to have the women arrested and summoned police.

That morning, Reverend Jemison had been cruising downtown streets, ready to test the ordinance himself. “He was passing by and saw that the police had stopped the bus, and so he stopped to inquire after what was happening,” recalls Johnnie Jones.

“Reverend Jemison came up and tapped on this policeman’s shoulder,” remembers White. “He said, ‘Now officer, you know you can’t do that.’ That broke it up. The bus driver took Jemison off the bus.”

“I’ll never forget,” Jemison says, “the bus company manager, H.D. Cauthen, came to the scene and told the driver, ‘Get back and drive the bus because the city council passed an ordinance that said they could sit down there. I agree, let them sit.’”

The driver refused the order. As local newspapers reported the incident at the time, Cauthen suspended the driver in response. The result was a walkout and four-day strike by the bus drivers union.

“It was the drivers who objected,” says Adam Fairclough, historian of the Louisiana civil rights movement. “They 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 in public statements to be looking out for the rights of the white riders, but public opinion in the press criticized the drivers and supported the City Council’s actions.

“The city ordinance is an important step toward the betterment of race relations among the citizens of this community and should be given a fair chance to work,” read a Baton Rouge State Times editorial. Overwhelmingly, letters from the public blasted the drivers. “This silly strike is sending Louisiana back to the days of King Cotton” wrote one reader. “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.” Another reader appealed for support: “All Baton Rougeans who favor increased social fair play for Negroes will let it be known and back them up.”

With the drivers’ strike taking its toll, union leaders turned to State Attorney General Fred Leblanc for a way out of the situation. Leblanc ruled the ordinance violated Louisiana’s segregation laws and overturned it. Word of that decision on June 18 ended the drivers’ strike, but galvanized the African American community. Black leaders united to form an organization they named the United Defense League, with Reverend Jemison as president. The UDL was led by a board of directors that included area church leaders, officers of the First and Second Ward Voters Leagues, Esso employees and local educators.

“They had put out an announcement that they would have a meeting that night,” remembers Martha White. “And the place was full, and they end up saying that nobody ride the bus the next morning, and everybody leave that place that night knock on somebody’s door all night if it takes you. Don’t go home, knock on the people’s door and let ‘em know that no black people’s riding that bus next morning. And that’s what we done.”

To guarantee the word spread quickly, UDL Secretary Raymond Scott made an announcement on WLCS radio that night, ironically a white-owned radio station and the city’s most popular station. Scott appealed to black residents to refuse to ride city buses until the law was changed, announcing that a carpool service would be available beginning the next morning.

First light of day saw an intricate carpool system that mobilized overnight. “The city bus would drive along and the blacks would just turn their backs,” says Hazel Freeman. “They would move on, then those of us who had automobiles, we’d pick ‘em up and take them where they wanted to go.” The UDL held nightly mass meetings, and photographs appearing in local papers during the boycott show thousands of people at the gatherings, and organizers collecting thousands of dollars to support the action. Gas station owner Horatio Thompson did his part to support the protest by selling his gas to boycotters at cost.

The boycott had an immediate impact. Within four days, the bus company manager was quoted in the press as saying the boycott was 100-percent effective. “A continuation of this loss,” he said, “will ultimately mean we will have to cease operations.” Word of the boycott in Baton Rouge spread like wildfire across the country, through newspapers, religious organizations and through the network of early civil-rights pioneers working for social change.

“The shear fact that they could boycott the buses for a week and do this in a very disciplined way was an example, and it showed that white supremacy was something that was simply not going to be accepted by black people in the South,” says historian Fairclough. “Change was in the air. A revelation in consciousness was evolving.”

Compromise or sell out?

By June 17, six days into the boycott, the Baton Rouge Bus Company was on the verge of financial collapse. It would seem that Jemison and the United Defense League had the upper hand. But, what was the next step? At the time, the boycott’s leaders had no road map laid out before them and no way to judge the white community’s response to a full-fledged challenge to segregation. Boycott leaders and city council members were receiving death threats. Boycott counsel Johnnie Jones had two drivers intentionally trap his car on railroad tracks with a train approaching. This was deadly serious business. It was still a full year before the federal courts would weigh in on segregation. Could the boycotters have realistically hoped for full desegregation at the time?

Jemison’s acceptance of the compromise with the City Council came as a complete surprise, even to UDL board members. Many in the black community felt left out of the negotiations and betrayed by the deal which did reduce the number of reserved “white” seats, but reversed the “first-come first served” practice. To this day, Willis Reed is still angry, feeling the boycott could have accomplished much more. “They should have at least consulted us before stopping the boycott,” he says. “That’s what they should have done, but they didn’t.”

Other leaders in the community are less critical. “It gave them a little more advantage, but it wasn’t what it should have been,” says Horatio Thompson, who has since built a successful real-estate empire in North Baton Rouge. Jemison has been largely criticized for making that agreement, “but during that time,” Thompson says, “that was about all you could get.”

Jemison himself admits his personal ambitions outweighed the boycott’s potential consequences. “My father was president of the National Baptist Convention. I didn’t go to the end in desegregation. I stayed on the side where I could become president of the National Baptist Convention, which I did. I 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?”

Historians put the compromise in another perspective. “I think he capitulated too soon,” says Douglas Brinkley. “But look, Jemison did try to get a group of people with different attitudes all together to take on the authorities. That’s not an easy task. Are people right to be frustrated and feel more could have been done? Of course, but let’s not lose sight of his role in history. He was somebody who had the courage to stand up, and don’t kid yourself, he was putting his life on the line and he deserves to be treated as one of the great heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, not somebody who failed, but somebody who won because he was willing to try.”

If events like the Baton Rouge boycott helped set the stage for the national Civil Rights Movement, then the curtain came up a year later. With its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

“Rosa Parks said at that point, Baton Rouge got on all their minds because Baton Rouge didn’t succeed because the thought was that the federal government wasn’t going to be on the side of African Americans,” says Brinkley. “But after ’54, it seemed that what happened in Baton Rouge needed to be tested in some other southern city.” A city like Montgomery, Alabama.

“All of the people I interviewed from the Montgomery bus boycott said Baton Rouge was in the back of their mind,” says Brinkley. “The lessons of Baton Rouge were not just what they did right, but also what they did wrong. Why did it collapse? Why weren’t they able to bring the case home? And how to do it differently this time.”

Many lessons learned in Baton Rouge were put to work in Montgomery and in subsequent bus boycotts around the country. Direct peaceful protest could be effective if it was well organized and the cause appealed universally to the black community. Public transportation was a natural place to start. Organizers had to be able to spread the word quickly and had to prepare participants with what to expect and how to react to adversity.

One of the most important lessons of the Baton Rouge bus boycott was the emerging leadership role assumed by religious leaders. Before the boycott, much of the battle for civil rights had been waged in the courts, led by attorneys for the NAACP or union members, like teachers or Pullman porters. This boycott started from the grassroots and was led by a dynamic African-American minister. This type of leadership would evolve into the dominant form of leadership in the national movement, says Adam Fairclough. “The ability to inspire, to preach, to convey the idea that this is a righteous, God-ordained struggle is extremely important.” Ministerial leadership also conveyed a kind of respectability on the protest that was afforded a greater degree of respect by whites. Furthermore, even though the threat of bloodshed existed, the boycott was resolved without violence. “Martin Luther King later articulated a philosophy of social change which he called non-violence,” says Fairclough. “This was a non-violent protest although it wasn’t called that at the time.”

Perhaps the most significant impact the boycott had was a psychological one, as a stepping stone in the foundation of what would become one of the most significant social revolutions in history. “They could see themselves organizing and bringing about things that they had held within them and were afraid to say,” articulated Hazel Freeman. “And they felt free and open to be able to express themselves. Just imagine people, when they see a change coming and knowing, ‘we are part of bringing it about,’ and that felt good! Can you imagine that? Can you imagine that?”

———-

As an independent producer for Louisiana Public Broadcasting, Christina Melton won two awards for A Signpost to Freedom, an LEH-funded film about the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, which aired on PBS in 2004. 

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