Martha White, a 99-year-old Black woman whose activities sparked the Baton Rouge bus boycott in 1953, has died. She was a pioneer in the civil rights movement.
In response to racial injustice perpetrated by white bus drivers in Baton Rouge, the Black Baton Rouge community organized a boycott in 1955 that served as an inspiration for the well-known Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks that year.
At the time, Martha White was 23 years old and working as a housekeeper. After a hard day at the office and a mile-long walk to the bus stop, she took the bus home to her mother’s house. After boarding the bus, she sat down in the single available seat in the area allocated for white passengers, despite the fact that the driver had urged her to relocate. She refused to move. As a show of unity, another Black woman joined White, and the two of them refused to move even after being threatened with arrest.
The police, the bus company manager, and a civil rights leader, the Rev. T.J. Jemison, all arrived on the scene, but Jemison informed the driver that Martha White and her fellow passenger had not broken any laws because the city had recently passed an ordinance that desegregated buses. After the bus drivers staged a walkout in retribution, the ordinance was finally overturned, setting the stage for a boycott spearheaded by Jemison, attorney Johnnie Jones, and activist Willis Reed, which resulted in the arrest of several people. At the time of the boycott, Black people constituted more than 80 percent of bus riders.
According to the Associated Press, Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said in a statement on Monday, June 7, that Martha White “unquestionably shaped our community in Baton Rouge, as well as communities across our nation.” “We will continue to commemorate her legacy today and every day.”
In response to Martha White’s refusal to leave her residence, Ted Jemison, the son of the Rev. T.J. Jemison, recalled White asking him, “Can you picture working on your feet all day and wanting to sit down?”
According to him, she was the same from when she was a child until when she was 90 years old. “She was well aware that what she was doing was for the greater interest of the entire city of Baton Rouge.”