The blogosphere and the media are all over the passing of civil rights icon Rosa Parks. But many of you may not know that long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and long before Martin Luther King had a dream, a little known Baton Rouge woman by the name of Martha White changed the world. (pdf)
When Ms. White courageously sat down on an empty seat in the white section of the bus in early June 1953, she was just wore out. But her action set off a chain of events that led to
the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, which preceded and laid the groundwork for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Although the boycott in Baton Rouge was peaceful and no violence resulting in physical injury to anyone occurred, the threat of retaliatory violence was ever present. And the threat of jail and/or physical violence for Ms. White and the other ladies on the bus that day was a very real one as well.
Before Brown vs The Board of Education outlawed segregation in public schools, Baton Rouge, Louisiana had a law allowing both blacks and whites to ride the bus on a first come first served basis. Blacks were to start sitting from the back to the front and the whites were to start sitting from the front. In 1953 in the Jim Crow south, that was monumental.
Earlier in 1953, the Reverend T. J. Jemison had gone before the city council and convinced them to pass the law, but city bus drivers refused to allow it to be enacted for over 3 months. In June of ’53, when Mrs. White got on a Baton Rouge bus, “just wore out” from doing domestic work, she sat in seat marked “whites only” because, as she said, it was the closest. After a confrontation with the bus driver, the police and the head of the bus company were called to the scene. When the police threatened White with aresst, all the blacks on the bus stood together and said the police would have to arrest them too. By chance, Rev. Jemison was passing the bus and stopped when he saw the commotion. After a few moments, he convinced the local police that arresting a whole bus full of blacks who were obeying the law was just a poor idea.
That outraged the white bus drivers who called for union action. Just 2 days later, the drivers struck demanding a repeal of city ordinance 222. Just 4 days after the strike stated, the state attorney general declared the ordinance unconstitutional because it violated existing segregation laws and the drivers returned to work.
That did not sit well with the black community who organized to start the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. After only a week, the bus company caved and brokered a compromise agreement. It was only a partial civil rights victory but before Brown it was a major win.
Years later, Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks took the model of the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott and applied it. The Montgomery bus boycott was directly inspired by the success in Baton Rouge. In a post Brown era, King and Parks finished the job started by an almost forgotten civil right pioneer in Louisiana.