More than two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Martha White refused to move from her seat on a bus in Baton Rouge, sparking the first large-scale boycott to take place in response to the segregated bus system in the Jim Crow South. 

It all began in 1950 when the Baton Rouge City Council awarded an exclusive contract to the financially strapped city bus company and revoked the licenses of its nearly 40 Black-owned competitors. 

Although Black passengers accounted for most riders, they were required to sit in the back of the bus or stand, even if seats reserved for whites remained empty. Three years later, in a further attempt to create financial stability, the city council increased the fares from 10 cents to 15 cents, creating more hardship for many Black riders who were already either unemployed or working in low-wage jobs as domestic or skilled laborers. 

Fed up with the riding conditions and fare increase, the Rev. T.J. Jemison of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church, considered the most prominent Black church in Louisiana at the time, appealed to the city council about the unfairness of it all. Jemison argued that Black passengers, who paid the same fare, should have access to the same seats as white passengers. 

Shortly after Jemison’s appeal, Ordinance 222 unanimously passed. The ordinance stated that Black passengers could fill the bus from the back to the front  and white passengers from front to back on a first-come, first-served basis. But many bus drivers ignored the ordinance and did not comply. 

Rev. T. J. Jemison with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jemison helped organize the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, the first large-scale boycott to take place in response to the segregated bus system in the Jim Crow South. Credit: Courtesy Ernest Ritchie via The Louisiana Endowment

On the morning of June 14, 1953, a bus driver called the police on White, a 23-year-old housekeeper, for refusing to move from a seat designated for whites, even though no whites were present. The driver was ultimately suspended, sparking the bus drivers’ union to go on a four-day strike that resulted in Attorney General Fred Leblanc overturning Ordinance 222.  

In response, Jemison,  accompanied by Black leaders, including businessman Raymond Scott and B.J. Stanley, head of the local NAACP chapter, formed the United Defense League. On June 19, 1953, Jemison and Scott went to the radio station, WLCS, to urge Black passengers to boycott the bus system in exchange for free rides via carpooling. 

After eight days of death threats, evening gatherings that drew thousands of supporters, and coverage from newspapers nationwide, Jemison reached a compromise with the city council, passing Ordinance 251. 

The new ordinance reduced the number of seats reserved for white passengers, ended the “first come, first served” practice implemented in Ordinance 222, and stated that Black passengers were still required to stand even if “whites-only” seating was available. 

Although defense league members were unhappy with the outcome, considering it “partial desegregation,” the framework for the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott would inspire Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts in the Montgomery Bus Boycott just two and a half years later. 

Now 50 years later, Martha White’s bravery remains a milestone event in Louisiana and is a testament to the power of collective action, determination, and resiliency in the Black community.

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Shannon Stecker is a creative writer, a marketing director, and a lover of stories. She has spent the past 15 years of her career in a creative space – as a print and broadcast journalist, a freelance...