Martha White, who played a key role in starting the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, died at age 99 Saturday.
White was a 31-year-old housekeeper during the summer of 1953, when she would walk miles in the sweltering heat to reach her bus stop and go to and from work. But on June 15, 1953, the only seats available on the bus were designated for white passengers only.
White decided to take a seat just behind the bus driver and was soon ordered to get up. She refused, and another Black woman sat by her side.
The bus driver threatened to have the two arrested before the police, the bus company manager and civil rights activist Rev. T.J. Jemison arrived at the scene. Jemison informed the driver of a recently passed ordinance to desegregate the buses in the city, meaning White wasn’t violating any rules.
Bus drivers across the city began a strike against the new ordinance, and it was later overturned by the district attorney. In response, Jemison, attorney Johnnie Jones and activist Willis Reed led a bus boycott for the Black community of Baton Rouge.
They organized groups that went door-to-door, informing bus riders of the boycott and organizing drivers to take them to and from work, according to Jason Roberts, co-owner of the Baton Rouge African American Museum and son of the late activist Sadie Roberts-Joseph.
“We really lost a true pioneer for civil rights,” Roberts said of White's death.
More than 80% of bus riders at the time were Black, so the boycott was a major problem for the city’s public transportation system. Eight days after the boycott's launch, Jemison negotiated an agreement with the city for better seating arrangements for Black riders.
Baton Rouge’s bus boycott, one of the nation’s first public transportation boycotts of the Civil Rights Movement, later provided the framework for Martin Luther King Jr. to start his own bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955.
Roberts met White once at an event for his museum just before the pandemic. She sat in front of the door outside the museum, which bears her name, but didn’t reveal her identity to anyone there. Roberts hadn’t realized who she was until someone else asked if he’d like to be introduced to her.
Roberts said she offered her condolences for his mother’s passing and gave him a blessing to continue her legacy at the museum. She was “reflective” in how she interacted with him that day.
“It was a very poignant moment for me to have met someone who I know my mother considered an icon,” Roberts said. “Had I known that she was there from the beginning, I would have asked her to sit on stage with me, but she was content to sit among the crowd.”
Ted Jemison, the son of Rev. T.J. Jemison, remembered White being very outspoken and unafraid to share her opinion throughout her life. He recalled a conversation he had with her years ago about that historic summer day, where she told him she just wanted to sit in that bus seat because she was tired from working on her feet constantly.
"'Can you imagine working on your feet all day and just wanting to sit down?'" Jemison remembered White telling him. "She was the same way from when she was young to when she was 90 years old. She knew that what she did was for the good of everyone in Baton Rouge."
Jemison not only knew White through her work with his father, but through their participation in the McKowen Missionary Baptist Church. Their pastor, Rev. Gerard Robinson, knew her best from her participation in Sunday school each week, where she tirelessly and meticulously studied scripture to share with the class.
"If I said something, she had to say something behind me," Robinson said with a laugh. "If I missed one part of the lesson she knew, she was going to tell me, 'well, pastor...'"
Robinson said she was very outspoken on the issues she cared about: Sunday school, social justice and community issues. He said if she could have, she likely would have held a march for community safety in response to ongoing crime in Baton Rouge.
"She just loved people," said Robinson. "She was a fond lover of her Church members and the people of the Church."
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome released a statement Monday afternoon regarding White’s passing, recognizing her contribution to the historical boycott.
“Martha White undoubtedly shaped our community in Baton Rouge, and communities across our nation,” said Mayor Sharon Weston Broome in a statement. “We honor her legacy today and every day.”
This story has been changed to change White's age at the time of the 1953 bus boycott. She was 31, not 23.