The life of the Rev. Dr. T.J. Jemison Sr., who died Nov. 15 at age 95, was celebrated Saturday by his family, his congregation and a host of pastors and politicians who crowded into the sanctuary of Mount Zion First Baptist Church, the Baton Rouge church he led for more than half a century.
Theodore Judson Jemison was credited for being the architect of the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, a nonviolent protest that was successfully copied by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala., two years later.
“Dr. T.J. Jemison is the father of the modern-day civil rights movement,” declared the Rev. Dr. Harry Blake, who was representing the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the largest black Baptist organization in America, with millions of members and thousands of churches.
Jemison served as the convention’s president from 1982 to 1994 and oversaw the construction of its headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.
Blake, to resounding applause, vowed he’ll try to have the building named after Jemison.
He closed his remarks by paraphrasing a Bible passage about the death of King Saul: “Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen?”
Jemison, who served as the Louisiana Missionary Baptist Convention’s 19th president from 1982 to 1995, was considered by many to be the dean of the state’s African-American Baptist pastors.
“We have come here to honor a great leader, a great man of God,” said the Rev. Dr. Chris Gordon Jr., the current president of the state convention. “Dr. Jemison has exchanged his cross for a crown.”
Mount Zion’s current pastor, the Rev. Dr. René F. Brown, presided over the service. When he asked all of the pastors in the large audience to stand, more than 70 did so, to a round of applause.
In an interview before the service, Brown described his first meeting with Jemison as an encounter that was divinely inspired. He was then the pastor at a church in Topeka, Kan., attending a conference in New Orleans, and had no intention of changing pulpits.
“I was walking into the Convention Center and he was walking out and he stopped to speak to me,” Brown said.
Since they’d never met, Brown introduced himself and they shook hands.
“This strange feeling came over me when he grabbed my hand and he told me, ‘You are going to be the next pastor of Mount Zion Church,’ ” Brown said. “It was definitely a Holy Ghost thing! That’s literally how I got here.”
The Rev. Dr. Jesse B. Bilberry, 84, senior pastor of Mount Pilgrim Baptist and president of the Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association, a group of 200 local Baptist churches, said Jemison was his mentor. He said Jemison ordained him in 1984 and preached at his installation service.
Jemison was always a great fundraiser, Bilberry told the audience, many of whom nodded in agreement.
“One time at a conference they took up an offering. I wasn’t present,” Bilberry said. “Later, he told me, ‘Young man, since you weren’t there I put $100 in the offering for you.’ So, of course, I gave him $100!”
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, said he and all black lawmakers “are direct beneficiaries of the hard work, commitment and courage of Dr. Jemison.”
“T.J. was part of the generation that challenged the conscience of our nation and moved us toward justice and equality for all,” Richmond said, reading from a letter by President Barack Obama to Jemison’s family.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said that although Jemison attained national prominence, “the most important role he had was as shepherd of this flock and this church.”
State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell quoted Psalms 37:27, “the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord,” and compared Jemison’s life to the Statue of Liberty holding up the torch of freedom. “Reverend Jemison gave us a torch to light the way,” he said.
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Melvin “Kip” Holden compared Jemison’s life to the parable of the Good Samaritan, who nursed the wounds of a man of a different race and belief system: “He (Jemison) went about righting wrongs.”
Former state Rep. Joe Delpit said Jemison “was like a father to me and shared his wisdom and knowledge with me.” He related how he once visited the State Capitol with Jemison, and then-Gov. John McKeithen told them, “Rev. Jemison, this is the first time that black people came in through the front door.”
Jemison’s three grown children, Diane Jemison Pollard, Bettye Wagner and Ted Jemison, each told stories of their father and how proud they were of him and their mother, who passed away “seven years and seven days ago,” as Pollard said.
“His most important rule was — do unto others,” Ted Jemison said. Directing comments to the now-closed coffin, he said, “Daddy, you’re the best!”
The church choir sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Amazing Grace,” and Deaconess Linda White told how “God has truly blessed us here at Mount Zion.”
In the closing eulogy, the Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, of Mount Vernon, N.Y., told how Jemison’s life cycled like a strong oak tree — how the vibrant young man in the spring of his years grew into a “strong advocate for justice” in the summer of his life and eventually to the autumn of his days and “a long December” of decline as his last years were plagued with health issues.
Richardson stressed what “a man of God” Jemison was, and related how one time while on national convention business they were staying in adjoining hotel rooms.
“His door was open and I saw him kneeling down by the bed talking to God,” Richardson said. “Here was a great man who intersects with presidents and potentates, who, when the night falls, falls on his knees and humbles himself before the Lord.”
As a cold winter rain soaked Baton Rouge, Jemison was laid to rest Saturday afternoon at Greenoaks Memorial Park on Florida Boulevard.