The landscaped serenity of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church stands in stark contrast to the thick traffic that rumbles on Government Street toward downtown Baton Rouge. Behind a tall, ornate wooden door, a narrow sanctuary leads to a grand bell-tower at the church's rear; a long, two-story expanse houses a public elementary school. But hidden in history is Mt. Zion's role as a building block for the Southern struggle for civil rights.
In 1948, the Rev. T.J. Jemison arrived at this church from his hometown of Selma, Ala. Jemison's father, the Rev. David V. Jemison, served as pastor of Selma's Tabernacle Baptist Church, a launching point for the famed Selma-to-Montgomery march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When the younger Jemison assumed his role at Mt. Zion, the church was a decaying wooden structure. The young, vigorous reverend took on the project of rebuilding it -- and in doing so, the web of segregation began to tear apart.
"This ground right here is the base for the integration of buses in the South," recalls Jemison, during a recent tour of the church. He speaks calmly and precisely, with the soothing tone that earned him a reputation as one of the South's greatest orators. (Just last week, at age 89 and amid rumors of declining health, he gave a sermon fittingly titled "A Victorious Faith.") He is steady and calm in his recollections, only interrupting himself once to shout, "Take your cap off!" to a young man entering the building sporting a Philadelphia 76ers cap. The youngster quickly obliges.
"We began building the church in 1953, and I would stand out front and watch the people lay bricks and so forth," Jemison continues. "I didn't think about building anything except the church at first. But we saw the buses heading into south Baton Rouge, filled with people standing behind rows of empty seats. These people had been out all day working in other parts of the city. They were cleaning up for our white neighbors, doing their cooking, and were on their way home. I just thought it was terrible they couldn't sit down."
Fifty years later, Jemison's determination is being celebrated as a pivotal moment in the struggle against segregation. The successful Baton Rouge bus boycott predated Brown v. Board of Education by one year and the widely recognized Montgomery bus boycott by two years. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that Jemison's "painstaking description of the Baton Rouge experience proved invaluable."
This weekend, scholars, activists and Civil Rights veterans converge on Baton Rouge to honor the bus boycott's 50th anniversary. In addition to the weekend's many events, Louisiana State University's T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History has established a new Web site (www.brbusboycott.org), which includes an oral history of the boycott. The conference's organizing committee has founded the Rev. T.J. Jemison & Rev. James L. Stovall Oral History Teacher Fellowship Program to recruit teachers to study the boycott's history and raise awareness in the community.
Organizers say the need to honor and document the boycott is more acute then ever. Facts blur in the aging minds of those few key players still living. More documentation is needed. Plus, the event provides the opportunity to examine conflicting stories and lingering questions: Did King actually visit or just call Baton Rouge immediately after the boycott? Who deserves credit for organizing the boycott?
Among some veterans, this last question is especially contentious.
The Baton Rouge bus boycott officially lasted only eight days -- but was months in the making. In early 1953, the Baton Rouge city-parish council voted to raise bus fares. The move angered African Americans who comprised 80 percent of bus ridership and paid full fare, but were forced to sit or stand behind the first 10 seats -- whether they were filled or not. On Feb. 11, 1953, Jemison spoke before the council to denounce the fare increase and ask for the end of the practice of reserving seats for whites. The council voted unanimously on Feb. 25 to create Ordinance 222, which upheld segregation but allowed blacks to board the bus starting at the back, and whites to board starting at the front. Ordinance 222 was initially applauded in the black community as it allowed more room for sitting when the bus was majority black, which was typically the case.
However, Ordinance 222 went unenforced. In early June 1953, Jemison tested the new law by sitting in the white section. The driver asked him to move. He refused, and the driver steered the bus directly to the police station. An officer boarded the bus but sided with Jemison. This incident and others like it provoked the all-white drivers to strike in protest of Ordinance 222 on June 15. Four days later, state Attorney General Fred LeBlanc declared 222 unconstitutional, ruling it violated the state's segregation laws, and the drivers returned to work.
After the attorney general's ruling, black leaders formed the United Defense League (UDL) and sued the City of Baton Rouge in state court to desegregate the buses. On July 19, during the legal maneuverings, Rev. Jemison announced on radio station WLCS that a boycott would begin the next morning, with a "free ride" system to be established to transport people as needed. Horatio Thompson, the African-American owner of several Esso gas stations, donated gas at-cost to drivers who gave free rides in their own cars, and the first day of the boycott enjoyed an 85 percent drop in bus ridership. By the third day of the boycott, the buses were 99 percent empty.
During the boycott, the UDL held nightly meetings at churches and other locations. The organization was negotiating a deal with the council to preserve the essence of 222, but still keep the buses segregated, with the first two seats reserved for whites, and the back bench reserved for blacks. On June 24, a huge crowd gathered at Memorial Stadium. Jemison declared the boycott was over. Although many protesters wanted to push the boycott further and end the segregationist policy, the majority approved of the compromise.
"People still want to know why I didn't push further, and take King's path toward ending all segregation," Jemison says. "That wasn't my interest. I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps, and become president of the National Baptist Convention, which I did in 1982. King accomplished so much for people; as his good friend, I supported and backed him the whole way. But I chose to stay focused on the church, not the whole country."
Willis Reed tells a different boycott story. "People often attempt to position themselves as leaders in the black community, but they're not real leaders," says Reed, during an interview in his office at the Baton Rouge Post, a free weekly African-American newspaper where Reed, at 89, still serves as editor, owner and sole reporter.
Reed's office is cluttered with piles of loose papers and multiple pictures of both Bill Clinton and Edwin Edwards -- "two favorites of mine," Reed says. The paper, with a 5,000 circulation, is an endeavor that Reed says "leaves me a poor, tired man." In 1994, the Louisiana Press Association recognized his efforts by inducting him into the "50-Year Club."
Reed, who is among the participants at the anniversary celebration, contends he is the primary force behind organizing for the boycott, having founded in late 1952 the First Ward Voters League, a group that he says predates Jemison's UDL by "months and months." It was the First Ward Voters League, Reed says, that held the first organizational meeting to protest the segregated bus system. He recalls the illegal gathering at the all-black Capital High School was not allowed by the school's principal. The group got in the school by elevating a small boy through an open window in the back. "It was in that auditorium, on that night, that I introduced Rev. Jemison to Baton Rouge," Reed says.
The First Ward Voters League has several events planned to mark the 50th anniversary outside of the conference events, and Reed has printed hand-outs bearing the motto "Set the Record Straight." In addition to his work at the newspaper, Reed also worked for the federal Civil Rights Commission, including a stint examining the racial policies of public schools in Bogalusa. He says the Civil Rights-era struggles are relevant, though often misunderstood: "There's no way in the world to make you feel how we felt back then. We worked against a system created against us. We had police officers looking for any excuse to smack a stick across our heads. You can not talk about this enough. People can't be reminded enough."
When asked about Reed's charges, Jemison demurs. "I'm not going to comment on what he said about me and the bus boycott," he says. "It's too late in my life now to be contradictory. Willis Reed was a member of my church. He's a good man, and did a lot of good for the people, and I won't say anything to take all that away from him now."
Veteran civil rights lawyer Johnnie Jones is more specific. "Willis Reed's contention is wrong," says the 84-year-old Jones. "He's tried to convince me of his side for years, and it's simply not true. The concept of the boycott may have originated within the First Ward Voters League. But talk didn't start it. The boycott started when Reverend Jemison decided to ride the bus in the face of segregation. He did the same thing Rosa Parks did, and like her, he started the boycott."
The battle for equality on Baton Rouge's buses was a personal one for Jones, a protege of New Orleans' famed dean of black Louisiana lawyers A.P. Tureaud and the author of several landmark Civil Rights-era lawsuits that earned victories in the U.S. Supreme Court. During law school at Southern University, Jones and his son, Audrey, boarded a city bus. Jones recalls that Audrey jumped excitedly in the first row -- in front of white passengers, a move that drew the ire of the bus driver. "Don't worry," Jones told his scolded son. "Daddy's gonna do something about that someday."
Jones' landmark Supreme Court victories include defending the sit-ins in 1960 by Southern University students at a drug store counter in 1960, feats outlined in Jack Greenberg's book Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. In addition, Jones authored the lawsuit Rev. T.J. Jemison, et. al. v. City of Baton Rouge. Though Jones felt the lawsuit was legally flawed, he pursued Jemison's case regardless, just two weeks after he was admitted to the Louisiana bar.
"Jemison approached me about the lawsuit," Jones says, "and I took it, but I knew it couldn't win. I said, 'Let's take this to federal court,' but Jemison refused, as he didn't want to alienate the white powers that be, and we filed it in state court, in 19th Judicial Court for East Baton Rouge Parish. The state court could not deal with what the federal court did, because state law was based on Plessy v. Ferguson, and the state's interpretation of that ruling was Jim Crow.
"The judge, Charley Holcombe, ruled against us on no right of cause of action, which was the correct decision. We could have won in federal court on my arguments, but not in state court -- they could not overthrow Jim Crow, it was the law of the land. When I came out of the courthouse and told the newspeople Holcombe's decision was correct, the black community was outraged with me. They called me a sell-out and said stuff like, 'Don't let the hungry dog guard the bones,' meaning I was too young and inexperienced to handle it. But later on, in the later cases, once they found out I was right, everybody loved me," Jones says with a laugh.
The Baton Rouge bus boycott was eventually settled by action taken by the city-parish council, not a court ruling. "Our case went no further," Jones says. "Jemison elected to stay in state court. Jemison wasn't really challenging the constitutionality of inequality. When Martin Luther King's suit came along, he challenged 'separate but equal' in federal court. But what the council here decided was all Jemison was after anyway. I don't think [Jemison] had in his mind eradicating the doctrine of separate but equal, he was really just interested in finding something that would alleviate the suffering of his people. And that's exactly what he accomplished."
- Francis Julais