Bishop Dee Williamston

How the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott led Martin Luther King Jr. to old McKinley High School

Bishop Dee Williamston

The auditorium had to be rebuilt after a 1998 fire gutted old McKinley High School, but that doesn't change the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. once stood in this spot. That was in November 1953, when the civil rights leader made the trip to Baton Rouge to deliver a sermon at Mount Zion Baptist Church while also learning how the Rev. T.J. Jemison successfully coordinated the city's bus boycott. While in the capital city, King also met with officials at Southern University, then spoke to South Baton Rouge residents in the McKinley auditorium. Two years later, he would launch the Civil Rights Movement by staging a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

"It looked different back then," says Melvin Mitchell, general manager of the McKinley High School Alumni Center, which makes its home in the old school at 1520 Thomas Delpit Drive. "There was a balcony in the back and a stage in the front. And there were auditorium seats in the middle.The building now is owned by the McKinley High School Alumni Association, which helped in its addition to the National Register of Historic Places, and then restored it after the fire. The auditorium is there, but its balcony, stage and seats were not replaced. However, the room resembles the original space where King spoke and raised funds for the beginning of his Civil Rights Movement efforts."

"There were about 6,000 people here that night, and he raised between $6,000 and $7,000," Mitchell says, thumbing through a copy of McKinley High's first yearbook. The school opened in 1926; the yearbook was published in 1928. Mitchell stops on a page showing the school's auditorium, appearing exactly as he described it.The building had been reorganized as McKinley Elementary School by the time he was a student there in the late 1950s, meaning he wasn't roaming the halls when King made his appearance there.


But Mitchell was in charge of the building when President Barack Obama visited Baton Rouge on Jan. 14, 2016. Obama was slated for an appearance at the "new" McKinley High School on McCalop Street, but those attending had to pick up free tickets at the alumni center."The line was wrapped around the building," Mitchell says, opening the side door to the auditorium. "It started at the top of this ramp outside the door, and Armond Brown, a former McKinley principal, was the first in line. He'd come here the night before and waited all night. A lot of people did." The former president became an official McKinley High School alumni during the visit. He was approaching the end of his presidency, and his Baton Rouge appearance was one of celebration.


But King's visit was much different. He was at the beginning of his civil rights journey when he visited the old high school, which, in its own way, was symbolic of his battle.The old high school is a beautiful building. It opened in 1926 as Louisiana's first public school for African Americans.But as beautiful as the building is, its student body was still segregated from those in Baton Rouge's all-White high schools. That's what King fought to end, thereby providing equal opportunities for all races.King eventually would pay for this fight with his life, but not before he would change history, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott. Theatrical-dance production tells story of 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott _lowres


The Rev. T.J. Jemison, left, meets with other ministers, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., standing, at a conference of southern black leaders studying bus integration in 1957. Jemison was architect of the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, which served as a model for peaceful civil rights demonstrations in the nation. ASSOCIATED PRESS Again, King looked to Jemison's leadership in the Baton Rouge boycott, which took place after the city bus company was awarded an exclusive contract to service the city, causing nearly 40 Black-owned bus companies to shut down. "Baton Rouge buses were segregated," writes Christina Melton in the Louisiana Endowment for the Arts' 64 Parishes.


The full story is on display in the McKinley Alumni Center and also can be found by visiting "The first ten rows were reserved for White passengers, even though Black people made up 80 percent of riders," Melton's story continues. "In February 1953, Rev. Jemison made a bold and unusual appearance before the all-white Baton Rouge City Council. Jemison argued that it was unfair to force Black riders to stand in the back of the bus while the seats in front remained empty." "The city council passed an ordinance that changed the seating policy," Mitchell says. "The buses were to be filled from the back to the front, but the bus drivers said they weren't going to follow the new rule."


And they didn't. So came the boycott. The United Defense League was formed with Jemison elected its president. The league spread the word by radio and word-of-mouth asking Black riders not to board city buses until the law was changed."The Black riders turned their backs on the buses at the bus stops," Mitchell says. "Black people with automobiles picked up the riders and brought them to work." Now here's the clincher: After eight days of virtually no riders, the Baton Rouge Bus Co. found itself in money trouble. "Still, boycotters were determined to demand change," Melton writes in her 64 Parishes story. "On the evening of June 22, more than seven thousand Black citizens gathered in Baton Rouge's municipal stadium. 'We don't have to ride the buses. There's nothing wrong with our feet!' they shouted. 'We'll keep walking!'""Finally, Rev. Jemison met with the council," Mitchell says. "The council said they would reserve only the bench at the front of the bus for Whites." Melton writes that the Whites-only section simply was reduced. Either way, Jemison agreed to the compromise. That was on Jan. 23, 1953. The boycott ended on Jan. 24, proving that peaceful protests could bring about effective change.


This is why the Toni Morrison Society, in 2016, recognized Baton Rouge for its role in the Civil Rights Movement through its "Bench By the Road" project. The project was locally coordinated by Lori Latrice Martin, LSU associate dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor in the Department of African and African American Studies. “Too few people are aware of the role that the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott played in the Civil Rights Movement," she said during the bench's installation. "The bravery and courage of the residents of Baton Rouge changed public policies, hearts and minds. The Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by the Road Project provides opportunities for local communities, states, nations and the global community to engage in moments of reflection that connect our collective pasts with our shared destinies.” The bench was unveiled on the alumni center grounds on Feb. 6, 2016, not only commemorating Jemison's efforts but crediting the Baton Rouge bus boycott as the precursor to the Montgomery boycott. "The South Baton Rouge residents are rarely recognized as individuals whose efforts provided a model for one of


the most effective protest strategies used during the Civil Rights Movement," the bench's commemorative plaque states. "The Baton Rouge Bus Boycott demonstrated the power of local, collective action in bringing about change and made an important contribution to the struggle for civil rights in America." The bench, as well as the alumni center, is open to all who want to follow in the footsteps of those who not only changed history but made a difference.


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