SIGNPOST TO FREEDOM
Martha was born in Woodville, Mississippi in 1922. She was one of seven children to Ephraim and Viola White, a pair of extremely poor sharecroppers.
When Martha became a teenager, her mother died. Unable to bring up seven children on his own, Ephraim sent some of them, including Martha, to be brought up by their uncles in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
There, she got her high school diploma and got married – although the latter was short-lived and ended in a divorce.
She became a housekeeper and diligently saved her money. She was able to buy her own home, something very unusual for the black community in the South of the USA. She lived in this house all of her adult life.
One day in June 1953, when she was 31, she was coming home from an exhausting day at work. She caught a bus home. On boarding it, all the seats in the ‘blacks only’ section were taken, so she had to stand. But she noticed there were spare seats in the ‘whites only’ section at the front of the bus.
So, she walked to the front and took a seat. “I was tired. I looked at the seat and I sat down.”
The driver stopped the bus and ordered her to move. She got up and was about to go to the back, when other black passengers jeered her for taking orders from a white man. So, she sat down again. Another black lady came and joined her as a show of solidarity.
The bus driver called the police. “It seemed like every policeman in town was there – and the head of the bus commission. I vowed never to get back on a bus.”
But she was also joined by the Rev. T.J. Jemison, pastor of the nearby Mount Zion First Baptist Church, who defended her. Martha was still thrown off the bus but Rev. Jemison managed to stop her from being arrested. He was later to become prominent in the Civil Rights movement.
The irony was that what she had done was legal. A few months earlier, the city had passed an ordinance saying there was to be no segregation on the buses. The white bus drivers had gone on strike – but had just abandoned their protest.
Word spread through Baton Rouge. A radio announcement encouraged all black residents of the city to attend a meeting at a local high school to discuss their response. So many people turned up that the meeting overspilled into the neighbouring athletics stadium.
Martha was at the meeting. As was Johnnie A. Jones, who had just graduated from law school. He pointed out to the crowd that they were paying exactly the same bus fares as white people yet were expected to stand if their ‘section’ was full. He also emphasised that 80% of the bus company’s profits came from the black community. He suggested a bus boycott.
Jones was also to go on to be prominent in the Civil Rights movement.
But buses were essential to ensure the black community got to work. “They decided to do what we today would call a ride-share programme.” Parishioners from Mount Zion church – and other churches – drove residents to and from their places of work. Collections within churches paid for petrol.
One owner of an Esso gas station let black drivers have petrol for virtually nothing whilst raising prices for whites (and he was white too).
The boycott began on the 18th of June 1953 and lasted eight days. The bus company quickly realised it was losing its revenue and came up with a compromise. It gave black people some seats at the front of buses and had ‘mixed’ sections in the middle.
The people behind the boycott accepted these terms, although many of the black community felt they had ‘sold out’. Johnnie A. Jones told the organisers that continuing with white and black sections was technically still illegal but once a compromise had been accepted, they had lost their right to go to court.
Two years later there was the Rosa Parks incident on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and a similar bus boycott began there.
Montgomery pastor Martin Luther King Jnr. Came to Baton Rouge to learn from their experience. He preached at the Mount Zion church and Martha was sitting on the front row of the congregation.
The Montgomery bus boycott has become much more famous than the Baton Rouge one – probably because it lasted longer, 381 days, and because of the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King.
In fact, the Baton Rouge boycott remained largely forgotten until Louisiana Public Broadcasting did a 2004 documentary about it entitled ‘Signpost to Freedom’.
Nevertheless, the boycott achieved it’s aims. Very quickly the Baton Rouge bus company abandoned all segregation for passengers but also started accepting black employees. In fact, some of Martha’s relatives work there today. Her nephew said, “Her bloodline is deep into that bus line.” He added, “She knew what she did was for the good of everyone in Baton Rouge.”
All her siblings predeceased her. The last survivor, whom she was very close to, was her brother Isaac White Senior. He ran ‘White’s Barber College’ in Mobile, Alabama, and was a pillar of the local community.
The Mayor of Baton Rouge, Sharon Weston Broome said of Martha, “She shaped our community… We honour her legacy today and every day.”
RIP – Resistant, Irritated Passenger