The Baton Rouge Bus Boycott Of 1953
The first massive bus boycott by African Americans of the modern civil rights movement dedicated to destroying the Jim Crow system of segregation in the South.
The Baton Rouge bus boycott started the direct action phase of the modern civil rights movement. It occurred in 1953, before the more famous Montgomery bus boycott from 1955-56. In 1953, Baton Rouge, Louisiana was under the Jim Crow system of segregation of the races. Public buses had a "colored section" in the back and a "white section" in the front. African Americans had to stand when the colored section was full, even if there were seats in the white section. This unfair system was compounded by the fact that the Baton Rouge bus company was financed by African Americans who accounted for about two-thirds of the company's revenue.
In March of 1953, African American leaders in Baton Rouge were successful in having the City Council pass Ordinance 222, which permitted them to be seated on a first-come-first-served basis. This Ordinance stipulated that African Americans had to sit from the rear to the front and whites from the front to the rear. All of the bus drives were white and they refused to accept the Ordinance. They continued to demand that African Americans not occupy front seats that were reserved for whites. As a result of the bus drivers' noncompliance, the Ordinance was ruled illegal because it conflicted with the segregation laws of Louisiana.
In opposition to this ruling, the black community began a mass boycott of the buses in June of 1953. The leader of the boycott was Reverend T. J. Jemison, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist, which was one of the city's largest black churches. According to Jemison, "The Negro passenger had been molested and insulted and intimidated and all Negroes at that time were tired of segregation and mistreatment and injustice."
During the boycott, mass meetings were held at Reverend Jemison's church. Officials of the movement closed down the bars at 6:00 p.m. and set up a police department to patrol the community and provide bodyguards for the leadership. A free car lift was established to transport the black work force. Jemison recalls,
"Nobody rode the bus during the strike. There were about eight people who didn't hear the call that night and they rode to work. But by afternoon there was nobody riding the bus. For ten days not a Negro rode the bus."
The leaders of the boycott did not charge fares for the car lift, because they would have been illegally functioning without taxi license. The movement's strategists were careful not to break any laws. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP), and the United Defense League (UDL) provided legal assistance and strategic training for the organizers. All the churches in the African American community united to help support and finance the boycott. According to Jemison:
"We brought all of the leaders of the other community organizations in, and recognized them as leaders, so that they would feel a part of the movement, and that it wasn't just my movement. And that was the one thing that kept us together. No matter how the power structure and splinter white groups tried to tear us apart, we were able to maintain a united front."
To end the boycott, the white power structure of Baton Rouge agreed to a compromise. It stipulated that the two side front seats of buses were to be reserved for whites and the long rear seat was for African Americans. The remaining seats were to be occupied on a first-come-first-served basis. The black community agreed to the compromise and the boycott ended on June 25, 1953. This boycott was a major victory against the Jim Crow system in Baton Rouge. The boycott proved that the Jim Crow system could be challenged by mass action in other states. The blueprint of the Baton Rouge boycott was shared with African American leaders in other communities throughout the South. The celebrated Montgomery bus boycott, which was sparked by Rosa Park's refusal to relinquish her seat, borrowed the strategies from the Baton Rouge boycott. Subsequent anti-segregation protests were modeled after the Baton Rouge boycott, which opened the direct action phase of the modern civil rights movement.