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The state of Louisiana is paying tribute today to a civil rights pioneer, the Reverend T.J. Jemison. From the early 1950s, Jemison was a strong and steady voice against the unequal treatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South. He also helped develop the boycott as a nonviolent civil rights strategy in the U.S. NPR's Debbie Elliot has this remembrance.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The Reverend T.J. Jemison's body lay in repose at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge today, a white-gloved state trooper keeping vigil.
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ELLIOTT: U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu paid her respects. She says Jemison transformed Baton Rouge and the nation and will be remembered as one of the greats of the Civil Rights movement.
SENATOR MARY LANDRIEU: He had such a heart and courage for justice. There are very few people in our state that will rise to that level of influence, and it is very appropriate that our Capitol was opened up for him today.
ELLIOTT: Jemison was a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, its first elected secretary in 1957. He was a trailblazer in the fight for equality. In 1953, Jemison helped organize a boycott of Baton Rouge buses over a city ordinance that reserved the front seats for white passengers only. Ten years ago, Jemison told NPR it was a hardship for black workers.
REVEREND T.J. JEMISON: These people were coming from their jobs. They're mostly women, and they were standing up over vacant seats. And I thought that was just out of order and that was just cruel.
ELLIOTT: Jemison said the boycott was possible because volunteers ran a carpool to get people to their jobs.
JEMISON: We had what we call Operation Free Car Lift. And we had about 120 cars and drivers, and they would drive the regular bus routes.
CLAYBORNE CARSON: I think he was one of the pioneers of the modern Civil Rights movement.
ELLIOTT: History professor Clayborne Carson is director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. He says two years after that first bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Jemison advised King and others on how to orchestrate a boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
CARSON: Unfortunately, we have this narrative that the movement started in 1955 with Montgomery, without recognizing the indebtedness of the people in Montgomery to pioneers like Jemison, who came earlier.
ELLIOTT: Jemison was born in Selma, Alabama, the son of a preacher, a career path he followed as longtime pastor of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. After the bus boycott, he worked to break down other racial barriers, at lunch counters and in hiring practices. In the '80s and '90s, he was president of the National Baptist Convention, the nation's largest predominantly African-American denomination.
At the Louisiana State Capitol today, Diane Jemison Pollard says her family is proud of her father's lifetime work and legacy.
DIANE JEMISON POLLARD: Today is a tribute to how he helped all mankind, irrespective of color. Daddy really believed in the rights of all people.
ELLIOTT: The Reverend T.J. Jemison died a week ago at the age of 95, after a long illness. He'll be buried in Baton Rouge tomorrow. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We shall all be free someday. Oh, deep in my heart...