Rev. T. J. Jemison, Civil Rights Leader Who Organized Early Boycott, Dies at 95
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: November 22, 2013
The Rev. T. J. Jemison, a civil rights pioneer who organized a 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge, La., that foreshadowed the one set off byRosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala., and who went on to lead the nation’s largest black Baptist organization into liberal political activism, died on Nov. 15 in Baton Rouge. He was 95.
His son, Theodore J. Jemison Jr., confirmed the death.
Mr. Jemison was one of a handful of black clergymen recognized as a leader of the first generation of the civil rights movement. He was a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth.
As president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A.from 1982 to 1994, Mr. Jemison ushered into being the World Baptist Center in Nashville, the first national headquarters of a predominantly black church in the United States. But in 1991 he lost much of his church-based support by speaking out in defense of the boxer Mike Tyson after he was charged with rape.
Mr. Jemison was known for his political skills in the early days of the civil rights struggle, displaying a mix of charm and toughness that served him well in leading what historians say was apparently the movement’s first large-scale bus boycott.
Appointed pastor of the Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge in 1949, Mr. Jemison led voter registration efforts, beginning in 1950, that resulted in improved municipal services and the construction of a dozen new schools for black citizens.
In 1953 he persuaded the Baton Rouge City Council to abolish a public transportation rule barring blacks from sitting in the first 10 rows of public buses. When bus drivers went on strike to protest the change, Mr. Jemison led an eight-day boycott, starting on June 20.
Blacks accounted for 80 percent of the city’s bus ridership, and they were tired of having to stand up while some or even all of the first 10 rows went empty, Mr. Jemison said. “We were not necessarily interested at that time in ending segregation,” he said in an interview in 1993. “We were after seats.”
The dispute ended in a compromise: Only the first two rows would be reserved for whites.
Dr. King, the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, contacted Mr. Jemison in late 1955 for advice on managing a citywide bus boycott.
“Knowing that Jemison and his associates had set up an effective private car pool, I put in a long-distance telephone call to ask him for suggestions for a similar pool in Montgomery,” Dr. King wrote in a 1958 memoir, “Stride Toward Freedom.” Mr. Jemison’s tutorial was “invaluable” in winning that fight, Dr. King added.
The yearlong Montgomery bus boycott, set off by Ms. Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white person, was the beginning of the end of separate-but-equal accommodations in the South.
In a statement released on Tuesday, President Obama called Mr. Jemison a man of “visionary spirit and charisma” who helped “eradicate legal segregation and improve voting rights laws for disenfranchised Americans.”
The National Baptist Convention, with 26,000 member congregations and seven million congregants, had been a nonpolitical organization when Mr. Jemison was elected president in 1982 (his father, the Rev. David Jemison, had been president from 1940 to 1953). But Mr. Jemison quickly began staking out firm, liberal positions on race-related issues, accusing President Ronald Reagan of giving “respectability to racism,” supporting the presidential candidacies of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 and, in 1991, opposing the Persian Gulf war, which he called “a fight over oil.”
When Desiree Washington, an 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant, accused Mr. Tyson of rape in 1991, Mr. Jemison described him as a victim of racial stereotyping, prompting other church leaders and women’s groups to criticize his support as insensitive to Ms. Washington. They also accused of him of being prejudiced by Mr. Tyson’s offer (never received) of $5 million toward the building of the convention’s $12 million headquarters in Nashville.
Mr. Tyson was convicted and served three years of a six-year prison sentence.
Mr. Jemison was later indicted, though never tried, on federal perjury charges in connection with an alleged attempt to bribe Ms. Washington to drop the charges. After stepping down as president of the Baptist convention in 1994, he told interviewers that he was especially proud of his role in building the group’s new headquarters, his signature achievement, because it fulfilled a dream of his father’s.
Theodore Judson Jemison was born on Aug. 1, 1918, in Selma, Ala., the youngest of the six children of Henrietta and David Jemison. His father was also the pastor of Selma’s Tabernacle Baptist Church. The younger Mr. Jemison attended segregated public schools and graduated from the historically black Alabama State University in Montgomery before earning a divinity degree at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va.
He remained the pastor of the Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge for 54 years. He retired in 2003.
Besides his son, Mr. Jemison is survived by two daughters, Dianne Jemison Pollard and Betty Jane Wagner, and nine grandchildren. His wife, Celestine Catlett Jemison, died in 2006.
Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion and African studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Jemison’s contributions to the civil rights cause were never widely known primarily as a result of a decision he made in 1961 as secretary of the Baptist convention.
That year, the group’s president, the Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, and Dr. King were bitterly divided over the organization’s role in the civil rights struggle; Mr. Jackson opposed involving the church in it, and Mr. Jemison sided with him.
His decision secured his place in the church hierarchy — he remained secretary for the next two decades — but forced him to reduce his role in the movement, though he said he disagreed with Mr. Jackson’s views and would eventually change the organization’s policies after succeeding Mr. Jackson in 1982.
“It’s felt that he had a sense of loyalty to the organization because of his father’s association with it,” Professor Butler said.
Theodore Judson Jemison (August 1, 1918 – November 15, 2013), better known as T. J. Jemison, was the president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. from 1982 to 1994. It is the largest African-American religious organization. He oversaw the construction of the Baptist World Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the headquarters of his convention.
In 1953, while minister of a large church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jemison helped lead the first civil rights boycott of segregated seating in public bus service. The organization of free rides, coordinated by churches, was a model used later in 1955-1956 by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. Jemison was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.
In 2003, the 50th anniversary of the Baton Rouge bus boycott was honored with three days of events in the city. These were organized by a young resident born two decades after the action
T. J. Jemison was born in 1918 in Selma, Alabama where his father, the Reverend David V. Jemison, was the pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. He came from a family of prominent ministers and strong churchgoing women. He attended local segregated public schools.
Jemison earned a bachelor's degree from Alabama State University, a historically black college in the state capital of Montgomery, where he joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He earned a divinity degree at Virginia Union University in the capital city of Richmond, Virginia, to prepare for the ministry. He later did graduate study at New York University in New York City.
In 1949, Jemison was first called as a minister by Mt. Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. There he worked chiefly on internal church matters, overseeing construction and continued fundraising of a new church building. At the time, his father was serving as President of the National Baptist Convention, the association of African-American Baptist churches established in 1895.
Within a few years, Jemison became involved in an early civil rights action. In 1950, the city had ended black-owned buses, requiring all residents to use its monopoly system, which enforced segregated seating. It was racially segregated by law; in practice, black citizens had to sit at the back half of the bus or stand, even if seats in the front "white" section were empty. Jemison said later he was struck by "watching buses pass by his church and seeing black people standing in the aisles, not allowed by law to sit down in seats reserved for whites. 'I thought that was just out of order, that was just cruel'."
Making up 80 percent of the passengers on the system, African Americans were fed up with standing on buses while "white" seats remained empty, particularly after the company had raised fares from ten to fifteen cents in January 1953. Rev. Jemison took up the issue with the Baton Rouge City Council. He testified on February 11, 1953 against the fare increase and asked for an end of the practice of reserving so many seats for whites. The city council met that demand, without abolishing segregation per se. They passed Ordinance 222, which established a first come-first served system: it allowed black passengers to board the bus from the back and take any empty seats available, while white passengers boarded from the front. In actuality though, the white drivers largely ignored the ordinance and continued to pressure blacks to sit in the rear of the buses.
When bus drivers harassed those black passengers who sought to sit in empty seats reserved for whites, Jemison tested the law on June 13, 1953, when he sat in a front seat of a bus. The next day the bus company suspended two bus drivers for not complying with the city ordinance. The drivers' union responded by striking for four days. That strike ended on June 18, 1953 when state Attorney General Fred S. LeBlanc declared the city ordinance unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the state's compulsory segregation laws.
Reverend Jemison set up a free-ride network, coordinated by the churches, to compensate for the lack of public transit. This was its signature action for the boycott, which was also adopted for later use. "While the Baton Rouge boycott lasted only two weeks, it set protest standards, and is growing in recognition as a precedent-setting event in the history of the modern American civil rights movement."
With most of the black bus riders refusing to ride, by the third day the buses were almost entirely empty. The boycott lasted eight days, as Reverend Jemison called it off after successful negotiations between black leaders and the city council. The following day, the city council passed an ordinance under which the first-come, first-served, seating system of back-to-front and front-to-back was reinstated. In addition, they set aside the first two seats on any bus for white passengers and the back bench for black passengers, while allowing anyone to sit on any of the rows in the middle. To comply with state segregation laws, blacks and whites were prohibited from sitting next to each other within this arrangement. Jemision's model of boycotting in Baton Rouge was adopted in 1955 by organizers of the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, Jemison's "painstaking description of the Baton Rouge experience proved invaluable."
While a number of boycotters wanted to continue the action to attack segregation directly, the majority approved the compromise.
Jemison was elected as president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the largest black religious organization, in 1982 and served until 1994. His best-known achievement of his tenure as president of the National Baptist Convention was the construction of the Baptist World Center in Nashville, Tennessee. It is a headquarters for the Convention. He publicly opposed the nomination of Clarence Thomas, a conservative African American as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. He also objected to American intervention in the Gulf War.
Toward the end of his term as convention president, Jemison faced criticism because of his support for the boxer Mike Tyson, who was convicted in a rape case against a black woman. He was strongly criticized both by church members and observers.
Approaching the end of his tenure (a result of term limits), Jemison selected Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson as his successor, but Richardson was defeated by Dr. Henry Lyons at the 1994 convention.
Jemison filed a lawsuit to try to overturn the result. Eventually, through the appeals process, the election of Dr. Lyons was upheld. Jemison individually, as well as a co-plaintiff and their counsel, was ordered to pay $150,000 in punitive damages. By a later court order, Jemison and his co-plaintiff were required to pay the other side's attorney fees. The court found that Jemison had concocted evidence to justify the suit.
Jemison died in Baton Rouge at the age of ninety-five. His body lay in repose at the Louisiana State Capitol on November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Services were conducted on November 23 by the Reverend Dr. Rene F. Brown, formerly of Topeka, Kansas, and Jemison's successor pastor at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.
Two Jewish Republican officeholders spoke at the funeral. Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne said that despite national prominence, Jemison's most important role ... was as shepherd of this flock and this church." Attorney General Buddy Caldwell at the ceremony quoted Psalms 37:27: "the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord." He likened Jemison's life to the Statue of Liberty: He "gave us a torch to light the way."
United States Representative Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana's 2nd congressional district, based in New Orleans, described himself and other African-American legislators as "direct beneficiaries of the hard work, commitment, and courage of Dr. Jemison." Reading a statement of United States President Barack H. Obama, Richmond described Jemison as "part of the generation that challenged the conscience of our nation and moved us toward justice and equality for all."
Interment followed in Green Oaks Memorial Park in Baton Rouge.
From June 19 to June 21, 2003, the 50th anniversary of the bus boycott and its participants were honored with a community forum and three days of events. Organizers were Marc Sternberg, a 30-year-old resident, Southern University, Louisiana State University, and major organizations. Sternberg said, "Before Dr. King had a dream, before Rosa kept her seat, and before Montgomery took a stand, Baton Rouge played its part."
In 2007, Mt. Zion First Baptist Church established the annual T. J. Jemison Race Relations Award in his honor. It was first awarded that year to Jesse Bankston, a long-term Democratic politician in Baton Rouge.
While a number of boycotters wanted to continue the action to attack segregation directly, the majority approved the compromise.