In the summer of 1953, McKinley High School became ground zero for planning the Baton Rouge bus boycott — the first civil rights protest of its kind, and one that activists in other cities would later follow as a blueprint for nonviolent protests, including in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.
It was at McKinley — the first high school for black students in Baton Rouge — that organizers of the eight-day boycott held mass meetings to discuss strategy and raise gas money for a car lift program so their supporters could still get around town.
On Saturday, a bench memorializing the bus boycott was unveiled at the McKinley Alumni Center, which is the high school’s former location. The bench is the 17th to be part of the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench By The Road project, which places commemorative benches at places significant to African-American history.
The 1953 boycott was launched after white bus drivers refused to enforce a city ordinance requiring them to seat black and white passengers alike on a first-come, first-served basis. Black community leaders, notably the Rev. T.J. Jemison, organized a boycott along with “Operation Free Car Lift,” using their own cars to help boycotters get around town without the buses.
At the time, about 80 percent of bus riders were black, and the loss of their fares forced white leaders to make a compromise. A few seats in the front of buses would be reserved for white people, and a few in back for black people, but all seats in between would be available to anyone.
Satisfied enough, organizers called off the boycott.
“Our hope is that this project will help the world know the distinguishing role the Baton Rouge bus boycott played in providing a template for what would become the most successful nonviolent strategy of the civil rights movement,” said Carolyn Denard, chairwoman of the Toni Morrison Society’s Board of Directors. “Men and women and children stood here in 1953 organizing and implementing the Baton Rouge bus boycott, and they are heroes.”
In a poetry reading, Robin Clark described the bus boycott as “the mark that could not be erased” from the Old South Baton Rouge neighborhood nor the civil rights movement as a whole.
But Raymond Jetson, co-chairman of the bench steering committee and pastor of Star Hill Church, expressed concern that many people do not know about the boycott.
“I have been amazed over the last few months at the number of people who are totally oblivious, who have not a clue that such a significant event took place in our community,” he said. “But there are so many other examples of rich and vibrant history … that characterize people of color in this community that is being lost because the history is not being passed on from generation to generation. When we don’t share with our children the richness of our past, we rob them of goals to shoot for in their future.”
Chris Tyson, an LSU law professor and son of the late Judge Ralph Tyson, said Americans’ understanding of the civil rights movement has been condensed to a “short list of people and events that we recite once a year (during Black History Month) … with little intellectual curiosity for the little details and messiness of liberation work.”
He urged people to reflect on the sacrifices ordinary people made to be part of the bus boycott and to take that as inspiration to tackle current problems in Baton Rouge, such as high rates of murder, AIDS and child poverty.
“As we recognize the rich history that emanates from Old South Baton Rouge, understand that there is as much a need for collective action today as there was in 1953,” Tyson said. “…Let us wrestle with the fierce urgency of now.”