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Rev. T.J. Jemison Remembered As Civil Rights Movement Pioneer

The Rev. T.J. Jemison escorts Mary Briscoe (left) and Sandra Ann Jones from jail in Baton Rouge, La., on April 4, 1960. The two had been in jail as a result of lunch counter sit-ins.
The Rev. T.J. Jemison escorts Mary Briscoe (left) and Sandra Ann Jones from jail in Baton Rouge, La., on April 4, 1960. The two had been in jail as a result of lunch counter sit-ins.

The state of Louisiana is paying tribute Friday to the Rev. T.J. Jemison, a strong and steady voice against unequal treatment for blacks in the Jim Crow South.

Jemison's body lay in repose at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, where Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said he will be remembered as one of the greats of the civil rights movement.

"He had such a heart and courage for justice," Landrieu said. "There are very few people in our state that will rise to that level of influence, and it is very appropriate that our Capitol was opened up for him today."

Jemison, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was its first elected secretary in 1957. In 1953, Jemison helped organize a boycott of Baton Rouge buses over a city ordinance that reserved the front seats for white passengers only.

Ten years ago, Jemison told NPR it was a hardship for black workers.

"These people were coming from their jobs, mostly women, and they were standing up over vacant seats. And I thought that was just out of order and that was just cruel," Jemison said.

He said the boycott was possible because volunteers ran a carpool — called Operation Free Car Lift — to get people to their jobs. "We had about 120 cars and drivers and they would drive the regular bus routes," Jemison said.

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, calls Jemison "one of the pioneers of the modern civil rights movement."

Carson said two years after that first bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Jemison advised King and others on how to orchestrate a boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

"Unfortunately, we have this narrative that the movement started in 1955 [in] Montgomery, without recognizing the indebtedness of the people in Montgomery to pioneers like Jemison who came earlier," Carson said.

Jemison was born in Selma, Ala., the son of a preacher — a career path he followed as longtime pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.

After the bus boycott, he worked to break down other racial barriers — at lunch counters and in hiring practices.

In the 1980s and '90s, he was president of the National Baptist Convention, the nation's largest predominantly African-American denomination.

At the Louisiana State Capitol on Friday, Diane Jemison Pollard said her family is proud of her father's lifetime work and legacy.

"Today is a tribute to how he helped all mankind, irrespective of color. Daddy really believed in the rights of all people," Pollard said.

Jemison died a week ago at the age of 95 after a long illness. He will be buried in Baton Rouge on Saturday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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