Martha White

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In 1953, Martha White, a 23-year-old Black woman, took a stand by refusing to give up her seat on a Baton Rouge city bus. Her refusal to vacate her seat sparked a movement that challenged the City’s racist practices. Despite facing heckling from some members of the Black community, White remained resolute, refusing to give up her seat. Another Black woman came forward and sat in the seat next to White as a show of solidarity and urged other Black passengers not to give up their seats either.  When the bus driver threatened arrest, civil rights leader Rev. T.J. Jemison intervened, citing Ordinance 222, which had recently desegregated public transportation.

Rev. T.J. Jemison

In response, over 100 bus drivers initiated a strike, prompting the ordinance to be overturned. The strike prompted a review of the new ordinance by the Attorney General, who then overturned the ordinance and reinstituted segregation rules. This led Jemison and other Black leaders to form the United Defense League (UDL). With overwhelming support from the Black community, the UDL orchestrated a citywide bus boycott, with estimates suggesting over 90% participation among Black bus riders. It was the first bus boycott in the U.S.

To facilitate the boycott, the community implemented a highly organized “free car lift” system, utilizing up to 70 cars to provide transportation along bus routes. Local churches provided financial support, and volunteers offered free rides from 5:00 am to midnight. The boycott dealt a severe blow to the bus system financially, costing the city $1600 per day.

Baton Rouge Bus Boycott 1953

Amidst financial pressures, the city proposed Ordinance 251 as a compromise, mandating segregated seating with whites in the first two rows and Blacks in the last two, while the rest were first-come-first-served. Despite divisions within the movement, the compromise was narrowly endorsed by the UDL’s executive board and also received majority consensus at a subsequent community meeting where Jemison shared the recommendation to accept the compromise. While the majority of residents present did approve the compromise, there were also a considerable number of community members who wanted to continue the boycott and demand full desegregation, which was the original objective of the boycott.

On June 25, 1953, Reverend Jemison, despite not achieving the goal of full desegregation, concluded the boycott, officially ending the “free car lift” system. This decision paved the way for future civil rights movements, notably influencing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who sought Jemison’s guidance in organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Martha White’s pivotal role in the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott underscores the courage and determination of unsung heroes whose stories are often overlooked and untold.  White passed away in 2021 at the age of 99. Her legacy lives on as we honor her contribution to the cause of civil rights.

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