Baton Rouge Bus Boycott

by Mary Price, Ph.D.

     In early 1953, the Baton Rouge city-parish council voted to raise fares on the city's buses. This increase angered black bus passengers who made up more than 80 percent of the system's riders. Although they paid full fare, the African-American men and women who used public transportation were forced to sit or stand in the backs of buses while the front ten seats, reserved for whites, remained empty. The fight over reserved seating began quietly on February 11, 1953, when Reverend T. J. Jemison, the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and a relative newcomer to Baton Rouge, denounced the fare increase at a meeting of the city-parish council and asked its members to end the practice of reserved seating on the city's buses. At its February 25 meeting, the council voted to amend the city's seating code to allow African Americans to sit in the front seats of the buses if they did not occupy the same seat as or sit in front of a white passenger. It abolished reserved seating but required African Americans to board the buses from back to front and white passengers from front to back. The race with the majority of riders determined where the line of segregation began. The council passed the new seating law, Ordinance 222, without a dissenting vote and ordered it to go into effect on March 19.

However, the new law went unenforced. For nearly three months, the front ten bus seats remained reserved for white passengers, even on routes going through black neighborhoods. In early June 1953, African Americans demanded enforcement of the law after a bus driver manhandled a black woman who tried to sit in one of the “reserved” seats. Because of this incident, bus company officials ordered their drivers to comply with Ordinance 222. Elated by the enforcement decision, black leaders printed a flier that outlined the provisions of the ordinance and advised black passengers not to give up their seats if ordered to by the drivers. Jemison decided to test the bus company's directive himself. When a driver ordered him to move, he refused. The driver drove the bus directly to the police station, and an officer boarded the bus. The officer sided with the black minister over the white driver. Other incidents followed. Challenges like Jemison's to their authority angered the drivers, and on June 15, 1953, they went on strike to protest against Ordinance 222. Four days later, the state's attorney general declared the law unconstitutional because it violated existing segregation legislation. Elated, the drivers returned to work.

However, the ruling angered African Americans, and they decided to take action. They formed the United Defense League (UDL). On 19 June 1953, Jemison and Raymond Scott, a black tailor, went to radio station WLCS and announced that a boycott of the bus system would begin the next morning. Scott urged all African Americans to stay off the buses and promised that free rides would be given to boycott participants. By the end of the following day, no black passengers rode the buses; all took advantage of the free ride vehicles or walked to work.

The following pictures (courtesy Mr. Ernest Ritchie) illustrate the free ride system in action. Click on each for a larger view to open in a new browser window. Note: All photos within this online exhibition are protected by copyright and digital watermark. No unauthorized use is permitted. Please see site credits for ownership information.

The sense of community created by the boycott grew stronger as thousands attended the nightly meetings sponsored by the UDL and held in various locations, first in churches and, as the crowds grew bigger, in larger venues. Money was collected at these meetings to pay for gasoline for automobiles used in the free ride system. Horatio Thompson, a black businessman and the owner of several service stations, sold gasoline at cost to the drivers.

The following pictures are of Horatio Thompson's gas stations:

At the same time, black and white leaders negotiated an end to the boycott. After several days of meetings, the two groups of leaders reached an agreement that preserved the spirit of Ordinance 222 by requiring African Americans to load the buses from back to front and whites from front to back but prohibiting blacks from sitting with or in front of white passengers. However, it also reserved the two front seats for white passengers and the long back seat for African Americans.

Rev. Jemison broke the news to a mass meeting held at Memorial Stadium. While some African Americans wanted to continue the boycott and push for the end of segregated seating on the buses, the majority applauded the deal.

On 24 June 1953, the protest ended. Although short lived, the Baton Rouge bus boycott served as a template for similar protests throughout the South, including the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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