Civic and religious leaders gathered Saturday at Mount Zion First Baptist Church to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, a precursor of the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that helped usher in the civil rights movement.
“Signpost to Freedom: 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott” was organized by Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle and the Rev. Ronald T. Williams, of Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Mount Zion’s former pastor the Rev. T.J. Jemison is credited as the driving force behind the boycott.
For eight days in June 1953, blacks quit riding Baton Rouge city buses to protest a city ordinance segregating riders by race and forbidding black people from sitting in front of white people. While the 1953 boycott did not end segregation aboard public buses in Baton Rouge, it did force the city government to make concessions in regard to what bus seats black people could occupy.
Marcelle and participating church pastors presented T.J. Jemison and five others with plaques commemorating their contributions to the boycott and the civil rights movement that followed.
The other honorees in addition to Jemison were boycott organizers Isodore Tansil Sr. and Willis Reed; Clovis Hayes, the first black bus operator in Baton Rouge; Almenia Freeman, who gave people rides in her new Pontiac during the boycott; and Eddie Bradford, who was arrested in the Montgomery boycott and spent time in jail with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“So many of the details about the bus boycott and the ways he maneuvered have yet to come out and I plan on presenting that in a formal way,” Ted Jemison said in reference to his father’s role in the boycott. During an interview before the event began, he also said, “I want to tell the story of T.J. Jemison the way you haven’t heard it.”
“It was an honor and a privilege,” Marianne Tansil, daughter of honoree Isodore Tansil, said. “I grew up in this church, in Mount Zion, and to see Rev. Jemison and others dedicate their lives for the betterment of everybody, it was an honor.”
Marcelle said she annually plans an event in conjunction with Black History Month, and when Williams reminded her that 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the Baton Rouge boycott, she decided to honor those leaders.
“Many people think the first boycott was in Montgomery and that is a myth,” Marcelle said after the ceremony. “I like the fact that it started here in Baton Rouge and we were the leaders on it, and I think more people need to know that.”
The hour-long ceremony, which nearly 100 people attended, included a performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Brian E. Lusk as well as an appearance by Jamal Titus, one of the two mime performers making up the Disciples of Distinctive Praise.
After Marcelle delivered introductory remarks, Mayor-President Kip Holden addressed the gathering, reminding those present of the powerful social impact the 1953 bus boycott generated, not only in Baton Rouge, but also among future civil rights leaders watching around the world.
“If there is something to take out of this, especially for our kids, Baton Rouge, three years before the Montgomery boycott, led the way and organized the first large-scale boycott in the nation,” Holden said.
Holden also said young people of today need to honor the pioneers who came before them, “by doing what is right” and because of those pioneers, “Baton Rouge is much better.”
Holden proclaimed Saturday as “Baton Rouge Bus Boycott Commemoration Day” in observance of the event’s 60th anniversary.
Marcelle asked the Rev. Errol Domingue, of Elm Grove Baptist Church, to speak a few words to the audience about the civil rights movement that followed the bus boycotts.
“Most of the work was done by untold and unnamed soldiers that paved ways where previously there was no way,” Domingue said.
State Reps. Regina Barrow, Edward “Ted” James and Alfred C. Williams, all Democrats of Baton Rouge, presented a Louisiana House of Representatives resolution recognizing “the first successful African American boycott of the public bus system in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that eventually led to the desegregation of seating in the public buses in Louisiana.”
Marcelle then recognized Hayes, who told the crowd how he was hired in 1959 to clean buses, but following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which forbade discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race in hiring, promoting and firing — his boss promoted him to drive buses, which he continued to do until his retirement in 2000.
“I just want to stop him before he sits down and tell him we are hiring,” quipped Brian Marshall, executive director of the Capital Area Transit System, following Hayes’ short speech.
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