“Signpost to Freedom: The 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott” is a one hour documentary that recounts the circumstances and events that led to the nation’s first large-scale boycott protesting segregation and then examines its impact on the evolution of grassroots civil rights activism across the country during the early years of America's Civil Rights Movement.
In 1953, led by a handful of determined young men and women, the African American citizens of Louisiana’s capital city led a quiet revolt. Nearly three years before the famous bus boycott in Montgomery paralyzed that city and captured national attention, the African American citizens of Baton Rouge organized the nation’s first large-scale boycott challenging segregation. The city’s black residents pulled together in solidarity to make the boycott effective, organizing an intricate carpool system. In just eight days they brought the city’s bus system to its knees. This boycott would become a defining moment in the birth of America ’s struggle over civil rights. In years to come, lessons about the boycott’s successes and failures would provide momentum for the social revolution igniting throughout the South.
Until recently, this compelling story has been largely overlooked by historians. Yet, the boycott’s influence on later events in the nation’s civil rights movement is indisputable: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his book Stride Toward Freedom, that a detailed “description of the Baton Rouge experience was invaluable” in the early stages of the Montgomery boycott. Rosa Parks' biographer and Signpost scholar Douglas Brinkley says Mrs. Parks and other NAACP activists throughout the South monitored the developments in the Baton Rouge boycott very closely at the time. According to internationally known civil rights historian and Signpost advisor Dr. Adam Fairclough, “the Baton Rouge protest pioneered many of the techniques that became standard practice in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s: mass non-violent protest, the leadership of Baptist ministers and the foundation of alternative transportation systems.”
In an effort to bring this remarkable, untold story to millions of Americans, Signpost features interviews with eminent civil rights scholars and the personal stories of the boycott’s primary participants and witnesses. Rare archival photographs, film footage, and newspaper articles help in presenting a complete and accurate presentation of the boycott’s history.
Signpost uses its team of scholars to examine the rich legacy of grass-roots African American community activism, which was vibrant and effective in Baton Rouge during the 1940’s and 1950’s. In the years following World War II, numerous neighborhood-based voters leagues worked with Southern University students and NAACP activists to boost voter registration. Empowered by their growing ranks, African American leaders mobilized new voters and succeeded in winning limited concessions from white city leaders when it came to employment practices, use of public facilities and initially, in negotiating more equitable service from the city’s bus company. Signpost examines the power of this grassroots organization. By recording interviews with African American leaders of the time and aging boycott participants, many of whom have never been interviewed, Signpost reveals important new elements of this story. This is a remarkable story which most people have never heard.
Signpost also examines the boycott’s relevance in the adoption of a strategy of non-violent, mass civil disobedience in early civil rights protest, and the emerging role of the black church in the movement’s leadership. In 1953, Reverend T.J. Jemison was a Baton Rouge newcomer, but not unknown. His father had been the president of the National Baptist Convention, the largest African-American organization in the world. In 1949, Jemison arrived in Baton Rouge to take over the state’s largest and most prominent black church, Mt. Zion First Baptist Church. At the time, Baton Rouge and the surrounding community were home to numerous voters leagues and dozens of massive church congregations. As the African American community increasingly called for action against Baton Rouge’s bus company, Jemison emerged as an obvious spokesman. His outsider status and his financial independence as a minister shielded him from economic retribution. His family’s national status gave him notoriety within the black community. His dynamic oratory skills galvanized and motivate boycott participants. Once the boycott was underway, Jemison’s rousing sermons to gatherings of thousands of boycotters called for solidarity, peace and lawfulness above all else. This peaceful boycott, proved to be a surprisingly powerful and disarming weapon in the face of such a basic injustice.
Finally, Signpost turns to scholars and civil rights leaders of the time to examine the Baton Rouge boycott as a foundational event in the civil rights movement. Until this boycott, most of the early fight against the doctrine of “separate but equal” was confined to the courts. Signpost explores the affect the Baton Rouge Boycott had on African American morale and protest organization throughout the South. Comparisons between Baton Rouge boycott and the Montgomery boycott are used to examine the shift in the nature of political compromise between blacks and whites in the Pre-Brown v. Board of Education decision era, and the marginalization and polarization of racial moderates in the post-Brown years.
The Baton Rouge boycott only lasted eight days, and in the end, won no real victories against segregation. However, the boycott did provide essential lessons. According to historian and Signpost advisor Douglas Brinkley, “All of the people in Montgomery studied Baton Rouge. It became their case study. What did the people of Baton Rouge do right? What did they do wrong? How can we improve it here in Montgomery? So if you’d like, it’s sort of the John the Baptist of the Montgomery bus boycott. I once interviewed Rosa Parks, who told me how important it was, what went on in Baton Rouge. In her NAACP office in Montgomery, they were monitoring what was happening there, daily. So in that sense, it’s very, very important because it educated Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks and others on how to do a successful boycott.”
The boycott also proved to African Americans throughout the South that momentum was building in their struggle for equality. NAACP activist and Baton Rouge bus boycott attorney Johnnie Jones explains that during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, many African Americans in Baton Rouge did not see an end to segregation, “All the old folks at the time told me ‘why are you wasting your time on this? Nothing’s going to change, you’re just burning time and causing trouble.’” But the Baton Rouge boycott served as a psychological boost to African Americans throughout the South, through what Signpost interviewee, Ambassador Andrew Young called "The Grapeville. "Everyone pretty much knew what everyone else was doing," says Young. African American newspapers across the country covered the Baton Rouge boycott, as did the New York Times. Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a biography of Rosa Parks, says Parks and NAACP activist E.D. Nixon “monitored the boycott obsessively, thrilled that Louisiana blacks had so quickly mobilized en masse for equal rights, held rousing rallies eight thousand strong, created a car-pool system that worked, and most important, sent a message to America via peaceful civil disobedience that Plessy v. Ferguson was profoundly antidemocratic.” As Baton Rouge boycott leader Rev. T.J. Jemison put it, “I think our contribution said to Martin Luther King in Montgomery that it could be done, because we had done it. I think it gave them the feeling that it could happen, because we had done it.”
Regardless of whether the Baton Rouge bus boycott is viewed as a success or failure, the boycott’s impact on the larger civil rights movement is indisputable. Not only did the boycott provide proof that African Americans could take a brave, unified, and peaceful stand against segregation, it also brought to light a specific, yet fundamental inequity suffered by most black Southerners, paying the same bus fare as whites, but having to stand up over empty seats, simply because they were black. It seems an obvious place to start, but it was not at the time.
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