“People Rode Free by Day and Paid for it at Night:” How the Baton Rouge Community Influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

EPISODE 5   (26:45)

 

Free Ride System, Baton Rouge, 1953

Free Ride System, Baton Rouge, 1953

On January 18 we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. In observance of this holiday, the Center would like to honor his memory as well as explore the role that Baton Rouge citizen activism played in King’s political successes.

MLK had a tie to Baton Rouge through his religious and political affiliations. For example, early in his adult life, Dr. King visited Southern University for Sunday Vespers services. But what a lot of people don’t know is that Baton Rouge had a direct effect on Dr. King, and thus on the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

In early 1956, Dr. King paid a visit to Baton Rouge that would irrevocably change the course of twentieth century history.  He came here to study the blueprint of the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, a non-violent protest where the city’s African American residents boycotted the public transportation system, organized an alternative car-pooling system, and in eight days collapsed the city’s bus system. Ultimately, the boycott did not end segregation in Louisiana, but it inspired the leaders for the next battle in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Federal courts.  After meeting with the organizers of the boycott, Dr. King returned to Alabama and applied the lessons learned in Louisiana.  With a call for unity, he and fellow activists like Rosa Parks carried out the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In today’s podcast, we’ll hear from those who were inspired by Dr. King in their humanitarian efforts here in Baton Rouge, and we’ll hear from those who were involved in the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott that inspired Dr. King and his fellow citizens to take action that led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared state and city laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional.

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AUDIO EXCERPT TRANSCRIPTIONS AND CITATIONS

DUPUY ANDERSON is the key excerpt.   *For full transcription, see below.

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HUEL PERKINS:  Martin Luther King, before he was famous, used to come to Southern [University]. We had what was called a vespers series, and it was a lecture series. And he would come and he’d talk to us. We had no idea that he was going to become as famous as he would become. But we got a chance to meet him. And I remember at Northwestern [State University] he came up, and I was invited to the luncheon they gave him. So I got a chance to meet him at various points in his career. These sorts of things changed America. You can say what you want. Voting Rights Act of 1964, [President] Lyndon Johnson. All these things had everything to do with the changing of America, and the South. And let me be specific. When all the places, the eating places, were opened up in Baton Rouge, I had a friend, Rogers Newman. I said, he was studying out in California. He was doing some research out there. I said, “Come back to Baton Rouge. Blacks are eating everywhere.” [laughs] And they were. Look, they could go to Sears and Roebucks, they could go to Walgreen’s, they could go to Stroube’s, all these places that were not open before.

Perkins, Huel, interview by Petra Hendry and Dorian McCoy, audio recording, 2006, 4700.1792.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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PAUL Y. BURNS: Well in 1968 we had another project. Ralph Dreger and I went down to the Highways Department, Louisiana Department of Highways, down by the Governor’s Mansion, and we were investigating racial discrimination in their signs and we found four kinds of restrooms. [laughs] They had white ladies and black women and white gentlemen and black men. I think, something like that so. It was ridiculous. Well actually in a sense it was even more ridiculous because the Louisiana legislature back, the time that building was built, it was built the same time the LSU library was built, about 1958, the new Middleton Library. They had a law that you had to have separate drinking fountains and separate restrooms I think. In the case of Middleton Library you’ll find on each floor two . . .drinking fountains.  And the reason is one originally was for blacks and the other was for whites. One of the LSU students, some LSU student over there wrote under “white” he put “trash.” [laughs] Sense of humor you know. So it wasn’t long before they tore those signs down. That’s the reason you go to Middleton Library you got these two drinking fountains, identical, side to side, separate but equal you know. Well the same deal I guess was going on down at the highway deal, and we thought that was ridiculous so we wrote to the head, the highway department head and didn’t get a response so we wrote to the governor and we got a response and those signs were changed.

JENNIFER ABRAHAM:  Who was the governor at the time?

BURNS:  [John] McKeithen, I think, was governor.

ABRAHAM: And so the signs were changed at once?

BURNS:  Yes. Yes.

ABRAHAM:  So you would think . . . Would you say that letter writing is a good strategy?

BURNS:  It was in a case where you have…it’s kind of like Martin Luther King, Jr. and his nonviolent protest where you have a good cause and you know you’re right.  And you also know that the people that you’re protesting about know in their hearts it’s wrong what they’re doing.

ABRAHAM:  So you’re appealing to them on a human to human level?

BURNS:  Yes. Do the right thing because it’s the right thing.  We also appealed to them, do the right thing because it’s the law, sometimes that.  Or do the right thing because you’re going to make more money if you do the right thing than if you continue to do the wrong thing.

Burns, Paul Y., interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2001, 4700.1336. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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Dupuy Anderson

* MAXINE CRUMP:  I want to go back up to the bus boycott for a couple more questions.  One of things that happened as a result of the bus boycott was that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. came down to meet with the designers of the bus boycott here in this area, in order to carry out the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Were you involved in that meeting?

DUPUY ANDERSON: I was there with Johnnie Jones, Raymond Scott, Reverend [T.J.]Jemison a few others.

CRUMP:  Okay.  What sort of things did he want to know?

ANDERSON: One of the things, and most important things, he wanted to know how we did the community to rally behind us, and to get the business people, the filling stations and the like.

CRUMP: The black businesses? 

ANDERSON: The black businesses, to gain their support.  They had planned to go through.  I think Martin Luther’s plan was regardless we are going to boycott.  But he knew they needed complete support of the black community in order to carry out a bus boycott.

Anderson, Dupuy, interview by Maxine Crump, audio recording, 1994, 4700.0418. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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The following excerpts were taken from “‘Old Ways No More:’ Oral Histories of the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott”, copyrighted by the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, LSU Libraries Special Collections, 2003.   For the full presentation, please visit our site on the LOUISiana Digital Libraries.  All excerpts in the presentation are from LSU Libraries Special Collections housed at the Williams Center.

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DUPUY ANDERSON:  Coming up in segregated community, we had no judges. We had no architects. We had no engineers. And going to a segregated school and living in a segregated community at the time, my experience was very limited; my thinking was very limited to other careers. . . . We didn’t even think of a black policeman or a black judge.

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REGINALD BROWN:  My mother, she was a veteran of World War II, and so was her brother, my uncle. When they came back to Baton Rouge from the war, it was very, very much a crude awakening for her. She thought things would be a lot different.

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WILLIS REED:  I would deliver [groceries] to LSU, but I couldn’t go up to the front. I couldn’t carry the bill up there to get anybody to sign it, because I was black. When I carried the eggs or chickens or what it is, I just had to stand around and wait until somebody came up to the front, or else somebody in the front would come back there to take my bill up there.  

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Olivia Huey

Olivia Huey

 

OLIVIA HUEY:  In some ways, now that I look back on it, it was humiliating for the blacks. Because you get on the bus, and you paid what everybody else paid, but you couldn’t sit where everybody else would sit. There was a divided section. You would go to that section and sit on the bus. If you sat anywhere else, you were asked to go to the back of the bus. And it was known at that time that the blacks did not sit in the front of the bus.

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REVEREND T.J. JEMISON:  The blacks going down into South Baton Rouge were forced to stand up over empty seats. They could put their bags, their bundles, in the seats, but they couldn’t put their bodies. Of course, I thought that was ridiculous. I was much younger then, and I was more daring. I thought we would have to do something about that. And of course, we did.

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JEMISON:  The City Council heard our plea. They passed an ordinance; the ordinance was Ordinance 222. That said that black people could sit from the back to the front and whites could sit from the front to the back. There would be no reserved seats, and that first come, first served.

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REED:  The next morning, a lady got on the bus. And when she got on the bus, the bus driver comes up, took the lady off and tried to arrest her. When the police got there, he arrested the lady. But then somebody came from police headquarters and said ‘You ain’t got no business arresting this lady.’ And he told the policeman, ‘You go back to headquarters. I’ll handle this.’ So the bus company, they got mad and went on a strike.

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ANDERSON:  The night before the boycott, one little woman asked to speak. She got up and gave a very stirring speech — that she had an old raggedy car, and she would run it until you couldn’t run it any more. That morning at five o’clock we were all in place with our automobiles ready to accept the challenge.

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ALMENIA FREEMAN When the bus boycott come along in 1953, I was happy to help with that. We met with Mr. [Fred] Matthews and Reverend Jemison and others. We had meetings, and I was available to get out and drive up and down the road, take people wherever they had to go. It was like a daily job. It was a pleasure, you know?

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BROWN: Mass meetings basically took place at churches. When they put on this big mass meeting at Memorial Stadium, that was an effort to show unity, strength and bring about the raising of funds to finance this massive bus boycott. 

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Rev. T. J. Jemison

Rev. T. J. Jemison

 

 

JEMISON:  Well at night, when we had our mass meetings, we would take up money that would pay for the gas and the tires and whatever else happened to the cars during the time they were driving them. The people rode free in the day and paid for it at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WILLIE SPOONER, JR.:  And during the bus boycott it was a tremendous sacrifice for me because I was married; I was working on Terrace and Highland Road, so bus transportation was the only transportation that I had at that time. But we gave it up, my wife and I. We gave it up to try to make the bus boycott work.

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JOHNNIE JONES:  [Reverend Jemison] went down and entered into a compromise with the mayor and the city council that they wouldn’t desegregate the bus. Jemison thought that was right as long as it was ‘separate but equal,’ because that was the law. There wasn’t any animosity between us. It was just that I didn’t agree; because to me, ‘separate but equal’ was wrong.

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SPOONER:  Everybody was glad. We had a chance to go back and ride the bus, and you could sit where you wanted to sit. The person who rode the bus was really happy that it was over. . . .We weren’t going to ride the bus unless some demands were met; and those demands were met.

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ANDERSON:  Baton Rouge is known for appeasement. Give me a little taste of the pie, and they quiet us down. Those of us that wanted the whole pie, or half of the pie, was rabble-rousers.  

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Free Ride system in action, 1953

Free Ride system in action, 1953

 

MAXINE CRUMP:  Did he respond to the compromise?

DUPUY ANDERSON:  Who?

CRUMP:  Dr. King.  Did he comment on the compromise that took place with the Baton Rouge Boycott?

ANDERSON:  No, I don’ t think he did.  But, he went through with his boycott.  And it was my feeling, this is the reason why he was successful.

CRUMP:  Because he had learned from the compromise?

ANDERSON:  He learned from it.  He learned from it.  We could have done the same thing in this community.  You know we started off a lot of things right here in Baton Rouge, but we did not carry it to the complete finish

Anderson, Dupuy, interview by Maxine Crump, audio recording, 1994, 4700.0418. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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Johnnie Jones

Johnnie Jones

JOHNNIE JONES:  When we prepared the petition for the federal court, Reverend Jemison did not want that.

BETH SMITH:  Why?

JONES:  He said he wanted the power structure of this city and of this parish to know that we, the black people, still had faith in them and trust them to do right.  He was a Christian.  That’s religious talk.  That was alright in the church house, but that doesn’t mean a thing in the court house.  You see.  It’s hard to get… Martin Luther King, one of the few preachers, and another guy Stalworth I think his name was, out in Alabama, they were one of the few people that saw that different.  That was, the church house was one thing.  The court house was another one.

SMITH:  Do you think the bus boycott might have been just too soon for Baton Rouge to handle?

JONES:  The time had not quite come for Reverend Jemison to do what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did, but he did a yeoman’s job, a very good job.  He started the ball a-rolling.  He got things started.  He opened their eyes.  Martin Luther King sought out Jemison to get information on how to proceed with a boycott.  He was a forerunner.  His philosophy was filled with good intentions.  “Let them see that we still believe that they will do right.  We trust them.”  He was hoping.  He was hoping that they would go ahead on and desegregate the buses in a different manner.

Jones, Johnnie, interview by Beth Smith, audio recording, 2002, 4700.1589. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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IMAGES

Free Ride System, Baton Rouge, 1953.  Courtesy Ernest Ritchie. Rembrandt Studio

Dupuy Anderson

Olivia Huey

Reverend T.J. Jemison, photo rights reserved

Free Ride System, Baton Rouge, 1953.  Courtesy Ernest Ritchie. Rembrandt Studio

Johnnie Jones

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MUSIC

King, Freddie, interview by Tatiana Clay and Eric Julien, audio recording, 2008, 4700.1921.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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This podcast is copyrighted by LSU Libraries Special Collections.

For a full transcript of the podcast, please contact Jennifer Abraham at jabrah1@lsu.edu.

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One comment on ““People Rode Free by Day and Paid for it at Night:” How the Baton Rouge Community Influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.
  1. Thank you for the interesting oral history of Martin King and the Baton Rouge community’s role in the civil rights movement.

    We have an article on HistoryOrb.com titled “The Philosophies and Strategies of the Non-Violence and Black Power Movements” which may also interest your readers.
    http://www.historyorb.com/america/civilrights.shtml

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "“People Rode Free by Day and Paid for it at Night:” How the Baton Rouge Community Influenced Martin Luther King, Jr."
  1. […] To learn more about the direct link between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, please visit this earlier podcast episode, “People Rode Free by Day and Paid for it at Night:” How the Baton Rouge Community Influenced Mar… […]

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