The First Civil Rights Bus Boycott

50 Years Ago, Baton Rouge Jim Crow Protest Made History

A mostly empty Baton Rouge city bus

hide captionA mostly empty Baton Rouge city bus pulls up to an empty bus stop at the start of the June 20, 1953, bus boycott.

Courtesy Ernest Richie Collection
Car pool

hide captionTo get around, boycott leaders organized car pools. Here, commuters pile into the back of a car outside the Old State Capitol building in downtown Baton Rouge.

Courtesy Ernest Richie Collection
Carpool vehicle

hide captionA carpool vehicle advertises for a "Free Ride."

Courtesy Ernest Richie Collection

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.

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