Louisiana lost a pioneer and champion of civil rights with the death of the Rev. T.J. (Theodore Judson) Jemison on November 15, 2013. Jemison, architect of the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, spent the last 50+ years of his life advocating equality through nonviolence from his pulpit at the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
In February 1953, the Baton Rouge City Council proposed a fare hike on the city’s busses that the majority of the African American population used. Jemison opposed the hike and requested to the City Council that they forgo it; he also asked that Baton Rouge end the practice of reserved seating for whites on its city’s busses. The Baton Rouge City Council initially agreed to a compromise for Ordinance 222 in which African Americans could sit in any seat as long as it was neither next to, nor in front of a white person. Yet, the council never enforced this code. By June 1953, Baton Rouge’s African American community had enough and Jemison, along with activists Willis Reed and Raymond Scott, initiated an eight-day boycott of Baton Rouge’s public transportation services. As John G. Lewis, Jr., Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons of Louisiana, noted in a letter of 25 June 1953 to Julius A. Thomas of the National Urban League, three days into the boycott:
It would take many words to tell the story of the bus situation here. I have never seen negroes demonstrate so fully and completely that they are tired of being pushed around. Example: the committee of the Defense League has just left my office to make a deposit of $6484.16 which was raised at two mass meetings for the purpose of providing free rides to all bus patrons. That’s dam [sic] good for a small community. The no ride policy has been 100 per cent effective.
Within eight days of the of the boycott’s commencement, the protesters and City Council again reached a compromise that allowed African Americans to sit anywhere according to the original scope of Ordinance 222, in addition to having the first two seats of a bus be reserved for whites and the last row be reserved for African Americans, thus ending the boycott. This event would have national implications as the Baton Rouge bus boycott laid the foundation for the Montgomery bus boycott that would take place three years later.
Amistad’s holdings relating to the Prince Hall Masons of Louisiana contain references to Jemison’s work and activism, some of his correspondence, and images relating to his career.
Posted by Melissa Smith
(Image from the M.W. Prince Hall Grand Lodge F. & A. M. of Louisiana records. May not be reproduced without permission.)