The First Civil Rights Bus Boycott, No, not the one with Rosa Parks.


We are taking a closer look at Civil Rights in an attempt to understand just what this term Civil Rights mean. Of course we will take a look at the Famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, however 2 years earlier in Baton Rouge, Louisiana there was another Bus Boycott: largely forgotten, Here is the story of the Baton Rouge bus boycott,

Told by Debbie Elliot from NPR

Fifty years ago in Baton Rouge, La., black citizens banded together to fight the segregated seating system on city buses. They quit riding for eight days, staging what historians believe was the first bus boycott of the budding Civil Rights movement.

The Baton Rouge episode inspired the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, but was largely forgotten. But as NPR’s Debbie Elliott reports, organizers of a commemoration of the original bus boycott this week hope to change that.

Willis Reed, 88, publisher of the Baton Rouge Post, now takes a seat at the front of the bus that stops at the newspaper offices. The World War II veteran says doing that 50 years ago would have meant trouble.

“They’d put me in jail,” he tells Elliott. “And it’s wrong. Definitely wrong.” Reed was the founder of a group challenging segregation on Baton Rouge buses. Reed and a local clergyman, the Rev. T.J. Jemison, were the leaders of the bus boycott, which began June 20, 1953.

In 1953, 80 percent of bus riders were black — and Reed knew that a boycott would send an economic message.

“Historians believe it was one of the first times blacks in the South organized to challenge segregation,” Elliott says. “Yet most people here — even the African-American bus drivers — don’t know about the Baton Rouge bus boycott.”

Jemison, now 84, says he got involved in the boycott 50 years ago after watching buses pass by his church and seeing black people standing in the aisles, not allowed by law to sit down in seats reserved for whites.

“I thought that was just out of order, that was just cruel,” he tells Elliott.

After eight days of boycotting the buses, the Baton Rouge City Council agreed to a compromise that opened all seats — except for the front two, which would be for whites, and the back two, for black riders.

That wasn’t good enough for some protesters, but Jemison called off the boycott anyway, arguing they had achieved what they set out to do.

“When we started we didn’t start to end segregation on buses,” he tells Elliott, “we just started to get seats.”

Marc Sternberg, who is 30 years old and white, grew up in Baton Rouge but found out about the boycott by accident, reading an account of the action in a book about King’s success in Montgomery. Sternberg organized two days of events to highlight the 50-year anniversary of the Baton Rouge boycott.

“Before Dr. King had a dream, before Rosa kept her seat, and before Montgomery took a stand, Baton Rouge played its part,” Sternberg says.

Here are some other links about the 1953 Bus Boycott.

One response

  1. I am glad to see your coverage of the story of the Baton Rouge boycott. Those folks deserve some credit, to be sure.

    Another person who deserves some credit: Jackie Robinson—yes, the baseball player noted for breaking the color barrier in his sport. Why? Years before Mr. Robinson became the first black player in the modern major leagues, he refused the direction of a bus driver to move from his seat near the front of a bus and take a seat in the back. There’s good coverage of this in Arnold Rampersad’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography (Knopf, 1997) and some day I hope to rent a video, entitled “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,” that is supposed to recount some of these events.

    January 11, 2007 at 2:06 pm

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