The Baton Rouge Bus Boycott Taught A Nuanced Lesson

Aisle of bus
Leslie Taylor-Grover
July 19, 2021

Baton Rouge housekeeper Martha White was FED UP with taking the city bus. In addition to harassment, white bus drivers refused to enact a 1953 law that let Black riders sit when the “whites only” section was empty.

White worked with ambitious pastor Theodore Jemison to plan a boycott – but this collaboration would prove to be a mistake.

Jemison successfully helped White plan the boycott, including helping organize rides for those who used buses for work. Black riders made up over 80% of the city’s bus revenue, so the boycott was on the right track to truly hit the racist city in its pockets – at least for a while.

That’s because Jemison suddenly caved to white city leaders’ demands before the Black riders’ needs had been met! He ended the boycott early because he was vying for the top position at the National Baptist Convention, and the continued boycott would hurt his chances.

But all was not lost.

The boycott inspired the more successful Montgomery boycott a couple years later. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders in Alabama looked to Jemison and White’s example to help them organize Black riders once again. The lesson here?

We don’t need perfection to make change. Regardless of the nuances of the Baton Rouge Boycott, it inspired our people to stand up for our rights across the South.

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