The Rev. T.J. Jemison, a civil rights icon known as the architect of the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, which later served as a nonviolent protest model for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala., died Friday.
He was 95.
Theodore Judson Jemison, commonly known as “T.J.,” died at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, said Todd Sterling, a trustee at Mount Zion First Baptist Church on East Boulevard where Jemison preached for more than 50 years.
“There’s nobody that can replace him,” said East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden. “He was very unique and will go down as one of the most unique people that ever walked the streets of Baton Rouge.”
On the cusp of the African-American civil rights movement in 1953, Jemison helped organize a boycott of Baton Rouge buses by black riders who at the time were forbidden by a city ordinance from sitting in front of white people. The eight-day protest did not end segregation aboard public buses in Baton Rouge, but did force the city to make concessions in regard to what bus seats black people could occupy.
Perhaps most prominently, the boycott served as a road map for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he planned the year-long Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
In King’s book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” King detailed a telephone conversation he had with Jemison prior to the Montgomery boycott.
“Knowing that Jemison and his associates had set up an effective private carpool, I put in a long-distance telephone call to ask him for suggestions for a similar pool in Montgomery. As I expected, his painstaking description of the Baton Rouge experience was invaluable.”
The Baton Rouge bus boycott officially began on June 20, 1953, headed up by Willis Reed, of the United Defense League, Raymond Scott and Jemison. It happened about a week after bus drivers went on strike because the city had suspended two white bus drivers for ignoring a recently passed city ordinance that established a “first-come, first-served” basis for passengers of all races in most circumstances.
During the boycott, which became a rallying point for black residents of the city, men and women used their personal cars to ferry regular bus riders around the city.
“One of the things that I recall mostly about Rev. Jemison was his unique ability to be able to rally a community together for positive change,” said Tara Wicker, an East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman.
“He was a trailblazer and he was a man that left a mark on our history and really taught many of us as young African-Americans the importance of being able to stand up for what you believe in,” Wicker said, “not being afraid, but at the same time doing things in a peaceful manner that allowed for a community to heal.”
In a 2003 newspaper story marking the boycott’s 50th anniversary, 84-year-old Freddie Green recalled sitting guard duty with a shotgun on Jemison’s front porch. Green remembered crosses burned in the minister’s yard and at the church.
Jemison once said black Baton Rougeans’ struggle to gain the rights enjoyed by white Baton Rougeans didn’t end with the bus boycott. Black leaders pushed department stores to hire black clerks and the Sheriff’s Office to hire black deputies.
“They gave us what we asked for,” Jemison said.
An advocate for equality in all aspects of society, especially education, Jemison fought tirelessly for fairness in the treatment of blacks, Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said.
Marcelle hopes to rename a portion of East Boulevard in front of Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Jemison’s honor.
The son of a preacher, Jemison, who was born in Selma, Ala., became pastor of the church in 1949 — a moral high ground he held for the next 54 years.
“He was part of that mystical cloud that God uses to draw a people in the right direction,” said the Rev. Chris Andrews, former pastor at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge.
Though separated by just a few city blocks, the churches existed in two different worlds when Jemison became pastor, said Andrews, who is white.
Jemison’s invitation to Andrews to preach at Mount Zion a few years ago meant a lot to the former Methodist minister.
“I was honored to be in that historic pulpit,” Andrews said.
Jemison never preached at Andrews’ church, but the Baptist minister once delivered the Thanksgiving Day prayer at First Methodist, Andrews said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who met Jemison in the 1960s while serving on the staff of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., previously told The Advocate that he remembered Jemison being immersed in the civil rights struggle at the time.
Calling Jemison a “long-distance runner,” Jackson said Jemison’s patience, political acumen, credibility and integrity helped him become president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the largest black Baptist organization in the United States.
It was a position formerly occupied by T.J. Jemison’s father, the Rev. David V. Jemison.
T.J. Jemison’s crowning achievement as the organization’s president, a position he held from 1982 to 1994, was overseeing the construction of the Baptist World Center in Nashville, Tenn.
Today, his legacy lives on, and it’s sometimes found in unexpected places.
“When LSU plays Alabama,” Jesse Jackson said, “there’s some T.J. Jemison in that. He laid the groundwork for bringing down the Sugarcane Curtain that led to black players playing” on formerly all-white college football teams.
Mayor-President Holden, who considers Jemison a master politician and a long-time mentor, said the pastor taught him that no success is achieved without the presence of God.
“If more young people, not just in Baton Rouge but throughout the nation, would just take a moment, go back and read the history of this man,” Holden said, “maybe that would get them to turn their lives away from any violence and turn it directly towards reaching out to the community to make it better.”
One personal quality of Jemison’s possibly missing from the history books: his booming, gut-busting laugh.
“He had that big hearty laugh,” Holden said. “When something really was funny, you would know — you could be in another room — and you would know the big hearty laugh.”
Funeral arrangements for Jemison are pending, said Hall Davis, of Hall Davis and Son Funeral Service on Scenic Highway.
Ed Cullen and Advocate staff writer Ryan Broussard contributed to this article.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Nov. 17 to include the correct name of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.