Back in 1950, the independent Black-owned buses that had served Baton Rouge's Black community were outlawed. Henceforth, everyone has to ride the segregated buses run by the official bus company. Blacks mostly poor comprise 80% of the bus riders. Though they pay full fare, they have to sit or stand at the rear of the bus while the front reserved for whites remain empty.
In January of 1953, bus fares are raised 50% (from 10 to 15 cents). In early February, Black community leader Reverend T.J. Jemison of Mount Zion Baptist Church complains to the City Council about Blacks having to stand in the overcrowded rear section while "white" seats are empty. The Council adopts Ordinance 222 which changes segregated seating so that Blacks fill up the seats from the rear forward and whites fill the bus from front to back on a first-come, first-served basis. Under this plan, if a bus is filled with Blacks they can occupy the front seats, but they cannot sit on a seat next to a white, or sit in any seat that is in front of a white.
The bus drivers all white, of course deeply resent this minor easing of rigid segregation and they see it as a limitation on their power and authority over Blacks. They refuse to enforce Ordinance 222. In June, two drivers are suspended for not complying with the new rule. The bus drivers go on strike. Four days after the strike begins, the Louisiana Attorney General overturns Ordinance 222 on grounds that it violates the state's rigid segregation laws. The drivers declare victory and return to work.
In response, Reverend Jemison and Black businessmen like Raymond Scott form the United Defense League (UDL). On June 18, the UDL calls on Blacks to boycott the city buses in protest. The boycott is effective, almost no Blacks ride the buses. Many use the free ride system coordinated through the churches, and others walk to work.
Mass meetings are held at McKinley High School to rally community support for the boycott and collect gas money and expenses for the free-ride cars and drivers. By June 22, the meetings have grown so large that they have to be held at Memorial Stadium.
After negotiations between Black leaders and the City Council a compromise Ordinance 251 is adopted on June 24. The first-come first-serve seating of Blacks from the rear forward and whites from front to back is retained, as is the prohibition against Blacks and whites sitting next to each other or any Black sitting in front of a white. But to comply with the state's segregation laws, the two front sideways seats are absolutely reserved for whites, and the wide rear seat at the back of the bus is reserved for Blacks. Reverend Jemison accepts the compromise and the boycott is ended.
While the Baton Rouge bus boycott does not end segregation as such, it represents a significant victory of Black community action against segregation in the deep south. And it helps inspire the Montgomery Bus Boycott two years later. When the Montgomery Boycott begins, the initial demands are for amending segregation in a fashion similar to Baton Rouge's Ordinance 251, though they soon change the goal to ending all forms of bus segregation. And early in the Montgomery struggle, Dr King contacts and consults with Reverend Jemison regarding the free-ride system which is then adapted for Montgomery's conditions.
For more information on the Baton Rouge Civil Rights Movement:
Web: Baton Rouge Bus Boycott