The Montgomery Bus Boycott maintains a significant place in history based on how effective it was. What many people aren’t aware of is the inspiration for that idea came from the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. In 1950, the city of Baton Rouge decided to support the financially strapped municipal bus company and revoked the licenses of close to 40 black-owned competing bus companies in the area.
Because of that decision, the black residents had no choice but to ride the segregated buses operated by the city-owned bus company. Even though blacks made up 80% of the population they were required to sit in the back of the bus or stand even if the front seats reserved for white riders were empty.
In 1953, Revered T.J Jemison, who was the pastor of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church, the largest black church in Louisiana complained to the city council prompting them to pass ordinance 222 which allowed blacks to sit in “white” seats if the bus was crowded and those seats were unoccupied. However, blacks could not sit next to whites or in front of them. The bus driver’s union opposed ordinance 222.
When two white bus drivers were suspended for not complying with the ordinance, the union went on strike. After four days of being on strike ordinance 222 was overturned by Louisiana Attorney General Fred Leblanc who claimed it violated state segregation laws. The white bus drivers returned to work but Rev. Jemison along with other local businessmen and activist formed the UDL (United Defense League) to protest bus segregation.
They urged all black Baton Rouge residents to boycott the city buses advising them to instead ride cars, taxis, or walk to work. Leaders announced the decision at a mass meeting held at McKinley High School, they then went door to door to inform residents of their intent.
The following day, when city buses approached, the black residents turned their back to the buses effectively starting the boycott. The boycott would last seven days total. Facing financial ruin, the bus company and the city met with Rev. Jemison, president of the UDL. A compromise was reached which was titled city ordinance 251. The company would reduce the number of white-owned seats, but blacks would still be required to sit behind whites and would have to stand even if some white seats remained empty.
Many community leaders felt the compromise did nothing to benefit the black residents, placing some of the blame on UDL president, Rev. Jemison since he oversaw the negotiations. Either way, the unity that was displayed by the residents of Baton Rouge to successfully effect a city-run corporation is a inspiration for all of us.