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The Program

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.

Background

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.


The Story

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.”

Awards

  • 2005 CINE Golden Eagle Award
  • 2005 Honorable Mention from the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Awards for Media and the Arts
  • 2005 Best Historical Documentary at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival
  • 2005 Bronze Telly Award

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Relevance

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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.

Scholars

Dr. Adam Fairclough is the Director of the Arthur Miller Center for American History and a professor of American History at East Anglia University , in Britain. Dr. Fairclough has written extensively about America ’s Civil Rights Movement, particularly in Louisiana. His acclaimed book, Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972 , published in 1995, won the Lillian Smith Award for Non-Fiction and is widely considered to be the definitive work on Louisiana civil rights political history. Also of note, is his book To Redeem the Soul of America : The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr., which won the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights’ Outstanding Book Award in 1987.

Dr. Douglas Brinkley currently serves as the Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and is a Professor of History at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of ten award-winning books, including biographies of Dean Acheson, Jimmy Carter, and Rosa Parks. The New York Times has chosen three of his books “Notable Books of the Year.” He is a frequent commentator on American studies for NPR's Weekend Edition and is a frequent guest on national television programs. Brinkley discusses the boycott’s impact on Montgomery and the larger Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. Mary Hebert Price serves as the director of LSU’s T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History and is also the University Archivist. She received her PhD. In 1999, her dissertation entitled “Beyond Black and White: The Civil Rights Movement in Baton Rouge, Louisiana 1945-1972.” Price holds memberships in many professional organizations, including the Oral History Association, the Southern Historical Association and the Society if American Archivists.

Veronica Freeman is a professor of American history at Southern University. Her academic focus is 20 th century history with a concentration on politics and race. Ms. Freeman is one of a handful of academicians to focus on the Baton Rouge bus boycott. She has conducted extensive research, including compiling a collection of oral history interviews with primary players in the boycott leadership.

Dr. Anthony Badger is Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University and has written extensively on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the beginning of America’s Civil Rights Movement and the dynamics of democracy in modern American History. He was Tulane University ’s Spring 2000 Andrew W. Mellon Professor. Dr. Badger discusses the political climate of Baton Rouge at the time of the boycott and the impact the demonstration had on later instances of civil protest, namely Dr. Martin Luther King’s organization of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

Dr. Lance Hill is the co-Founder and Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University , which seeks to facilitate dialogue between different racial groups. His area of expertise is Civil Rights Movement, particularly in Louisiana. His book, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Self-Defense and Civil Right Movement, published in 2004. Dr. Hill served as our independent evaluator throughout our program’s development and production.

Ambassador Andrew Young is a Louisiana native and public policy professor of policy studies at Georgia State University ’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. He was top aid to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement and served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He presently serves on the board of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. He also served three terms in the United States House of Representatives, two terms as Mayor of Atlanta, and in 1977, President Jimmy Carter named him Ambassador to the United Nations.

Juan Williams is one of America's leading journalists, is a senior correspondent for National Public Radio's Morning Edition. He also works on documentaries and participates in NPR's efforts to explore television opportunities. Williams is the author of the critically acclaimed biography Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, which was released in paperback in February 2000. He is also the author of the nonfiction bestseller Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, the companion volume to the critically acclaimed television series. This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience appeared in February 2003. This book was the basis for a six-part public broadcasting TV documentary that aired in June 2003. In 2004, Williams became involved with AARP's Voices of Civil Rights project, leading a veteran team of reporters and editors in the production of My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience. The book presents the harrowing and haunting eyewitness accounts of some 50 activists who served as foot soldiers and field generals in the Civil Rights Movement.

Participants

Rev. T.J. Jemison is the longtime Minister of the Mount Zion First Baptist Church and is often regarded as the leader of the Baton Rouge bus boycott and a pioneering Civil Rights Activist in Baton Rouge. Rev. Jemison will give personal accounts of the racial situation in Baton Rouge in the 1950s and detail the boycott. He eventually followed in his father’s footsteps as president of the National Baptist Convention, a position he held for 12 years.

Willis Reed first worked as a reporter for a local African American paper in 1936. He served as a supply clerk in World ward II and was sent to the Pacific and the Panama Canal . When he returned he began working for improvements in the conditions of the African American community. By 1953, he helped found the First ward Voters League with Robert Guerney, and Columbus Dunn. The group became an influential voting block in Baton Rouge politics. During the 1960’s Reed worked for the Federal Civil Rights Commission, where he was instrumental in labor and education negotiations in racially charged Bogalusa, Louisiana . He has dedicated his life to speaking out for changes for the black community, even running for State Representative at the age of 80. Today he is the owner and operator the African-American newspaper, The Baton Rouge Post.

Johnnie Jones a veteran of the Normandy Invasion in WWII, returned home to Baton Rouge to begin registering voters in the Scotlandville and Baton Rouge area. He graduated from Southern University’s newly opened Law School just days before the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. He was approached by Reverend T.J. Jemison to represent Jemison and other members of the United Defense League in the lawsuit filed against the city of Baton Rouge to desegregate city buses. Jones argued with his clients at the time that the case should have been filed in federal rather than state court, but in the end, he followed his client’s direction. In the years following the bus boycott, Jones authored a number of successful civil rights arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court including the most famous one involving students who staged a sit in at the Kress Department store downtown. The case lead to the removal of race classifications in public facilities, on election ballots and in restaurants.

Hazel Freeman grew up attending one of the first funded Rosenwald Schools in Louisiana that was built on her parents’ property. She and her siblings and neighbors lived in a home her parents built while they attended classes at Southern University’s high school. Later in life she went on to obtain a Master’s Degree from Columbia University. She served as Secretary of the Second Ward Voters League for a number of years. In early 1950, when she and a friend were turned away from the front door of the Baton Rouge office of Volunteers of America, they decided to found their own organization to fulfill the needs of African Americans in the community. The founded CAWSC, The Community Association for the Welfare of School Children The nationally recognized service organizations helps hundreds of disadvantaged Baton Rouge children and their families each year.

Lewis Doherty, III’s family was already involved in politics when he decided to run for City Council in 1952. At 26, her was one of the youngest ever elected to the office. H e served one term and decided he preferred the law to politics. After graduating from L.S.U. Law School he ran for City Judge in 1960. In 1961, he was the first City Court Judge to desegregate seating in his courtroom, at the request of Johnnie Jones’ law partner Bruce Bell. He was elected and served until 1968. He then ran for State District Court, where he served for a number of years. After that he was appointed to various Circuit Court positions around the state, appointments in which he still serves today.

Horatio Thompson began his career in business selling drug store items out of his dorm room to fellow Southern University students. He branched out to offer a car transportation service to Southern University’s President and school dignitaries. This lead to the opening of a taxi business and eventually lead him to approach Esso-Standard Oil about leasing a gas station franchise in Baton Rouge. By 1954 Mr. Thompson was beginning development of the first large scale African American neighborhood community, Southern Heights, in Baton Rouge. He later went on to amass a real-estate empire and operate a number of businesses along Scenic Highway in Scotlandville.

Martha White moved to Baton Rouge as a young woman. In the early 1950s, she purchased her own home with the wages she earned as a housekeeper. She still lives in the same home and is still working to support herself.

Production

Signpost’s producer located a refurbished 1950’s era transit bus that the City of Montgomery put back in service to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. The team traveled to Montgomery to shoot video recreations of bus scenes described by our interviewees.

Additional recreation film scenes were shot at the Parish Courthouse in Clinton, Louisiana, Second Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, and on Southern University’s beautiful campus.

Additionally, the producer scoured public records and newspaper archives across the country and interviewed dozens of witnesses and participants to uncover nearly forgotten details of the boycott

The production team also worked with Baton Rouge native, Grammy-winning Blues artist and actor Chris Thomas King who created the program’s incredible musical score. King skillfully put together a winning combination of period Blues music that vividly reflects the flourishing African American community in Baton Rouge and Scotlandville in the 40s and 50s, gospel sounds which reflect the strong religious community, and a more modern beat that brings the lessons of the boycott to a contemporary audience.


Production Team

Christina Melton is Signpost’s Director, Producer and Co-Writer. Most recently she was awarded the prestigious CINE Golden Eagle Award and an Honorable Mention from the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Awards for producing Signpost. The documentary also recently won Best Historical Documentary at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. In 2004, she received the Alfred J. Dupont-Columbia Award for Journalism as producer of Episode Five of LPB’s critically acclaimed Louisiana: A History documentary series. Her other awards include a Mid-South Regional Emmy Award, an Associated Press Award, and two Silver Telly Awards.

Keith Crews is an award winning staff videographer and editor for LPB. His recent LPB programs, Living with Cancer and Kids Trying to Trim Down have broadcast nationally and earned a National Emmy nomination and two Telly Awards. Crews was also instrumental in the filming and production of LPB’s six-episode landmark documentary series Louisiana: A History.

Chris Thomas King is now one of most recognized and successful blues artist of his generation. The multi Grammy award winning musician and actor grew up as a child-prodigy guitarist learning the blues at the feet of some of the music’s masters at the Baton Rouge , Louisiana club Tabby’s Blues Box, owned by his father, Rockin’ Tabby Thomas. King has written a screenplay based on his life story, also titled “Why My Guitar Screams and Moans,” currently being shopped to publishers and television networks. Mr. King has continued to develop his own musical craft in soundtracks from the hit movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” and most recently on Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed PBS documentary on the Blues.

C.E. Richard is an educator, a writer and a filmmaker, specializing in Louisiana studies. His most recent project 0is the six-hour LPB produced series Louisiana: A History, broadcast September 14-19 th statewide. Richard has been honored with a CINE Golden Eagle Award for promotion of the series on PBS in 2002. His body of work includes a number of nationally broadcast documentaries, such as Against the Tide: The Story of the Cajun People of Louisiana, which won “Best Historical Documentary” in 2000 by the National Educational Telecommunications Association. Richard teaches Advanced Screenwriting at Louisiana State University, and served as Tulane University’s John Percy Dyer Professor of Media Arts in 2001. He co-wrote the script for Signpost with Producer, Christina Melton.

Ambassador James Joseph is Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Studies and Executive Director of the United States - Southern Africa Center for Leadership and Public Values at Duke University. In 1995, he became the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa. Ambassador Joseph is a native of Opelousas, Louisiana and a graduate of Southern University. Ambassador Joseph has served four U. S. Presidents, and from 1982-1995, he was President and Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Foundations, an international organization of more than 1900 foundations and corporate giving programs. He has also been a host, commentator and frequent guest on National Public Radio. Ambassador Joseph will narrate Signpost.

Resources

Louisiana State University T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History

http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/williams/


Louisiana State University, Bus Boycott Project

http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/exhibits/boycott/


The Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University

http://www.compugistics.com/si/


Voices of Civil Rights. AARP and Library of Congress Project on the Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement

http://www.voicesofcivilrights.org/


Music by Grammy-winning artist Chris Thomas King

Support

This program was supported in part by the generous contributions of the following:

  • The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  • The Louisiana State Arts Council and the Louisiana Division of the Arts and by the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge through the Decentralized Arts Funding Program and the Director's Grant-In-Aid.
  • The Louisiana Governor's Office of Urban Affairs and Development, sponsored by State Representative Michael Jackson.
  • Marc Sternberg and The Organizing Committee for the 50th Anniversary of the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott
  • Bank One
  • Forum 35/We Are BR!
  • Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge
  • Louisiana Division of the Arts
  • The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities
  • Louisiana Public Broadcasting

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