Rev. TJ Jemison-Mt. Zion First Baptist Church-Pastor emeritus-National Baptist Convention President-BET News-Michelle Norris, reporter*****
Theodore Judson Jemison born 1918, better known as T. J. Jemison, is the former president of the National Baptist Convention, having served 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 for the Convention.
In 1953, while minister of a large church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jemison helped lead the first civil rights boycott of bus service. The organization of free rides, coordinated by churches, was a model used later by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, which started in 1955. 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, organized by a young resident born two decades after the action.
Early life and education
T. J. Jemison was born in Selma in central Alabama, where his father, the Rev. David V. Jemison, pastored the Tabernacle Baptist Church. He came from a family of prominent ministers and strong churchgoing women. Jemison earned a bachelor’s degrees from Alabama State University, where he joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.He earned a divinity degree at Virginia Union University to prepare for the ministry, and later did graduate study at New York University.
Jemison was first called as a minister at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge in 1949. He was concerned chiefly with internal church matters, such as the construction 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. 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% of the passengers on the system, African Americans were fed up with standing on buses while “white” seats remained empty, 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. The bus companies’ white drivers largely ignored the ordinance.
When bus drivers harassed black passengers’ seeking to enforce the ordinance, Jemison tested the law on June 13, 1953 by sitting in a front seat of a bus. The next day the bus company suspended two bus drivers for not complying with the ordinance. The drivers’ union responded by striking for four days. That strike ended on June 18, 1953 when Louisiana Attorney General Fred S. LeBlanc declared the city’s ordinance unconstitutional on the ground that it violated the state’s segregation laws.
That same day Willis Reed, later publisher of the Baton Rouge Post, founded the United Defense League (UDL), chief organizer of the bus boycott. He knew the black riders had economic impact. Others involved were Jemison and Raymond Scott. They planned to bring suit against the City to desegregate the buses and began the boycott June 20, 1953.
The UDL 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, adopted for later ones. “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.”
The organizers of the later Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955 used the model of the free-ride system when they began what became a year-long boycott in that city. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, Jemison’s “painstaking description of the Baton Rouge experience proved invaluable.”