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Doc Explores How a Quiet Revolution in Baton Rouge Changed History

Christopher Tyson never learned about the Baton Rouge bus boycott of 1953 while he was in school.

While he knew that it happened in his hometown, Tyson — now a professor at the Louisiana State University Law Center — had no idea about the importance of the boycott in the context of the larger civil rights movement.

The protest, led by African-Americans of Louisiana’s capital, was the nation’s first large scale bus boycott and served as a model for a more well known event that occurred nearly three years later — the Montgomery bus boycott.

The history of this first bus boycott is the subject of Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s “Signpost to Freedom: The 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott,” which screened this month in Washington, D.C. as part of the March on Washington Film Festival. The event was held at Google’s D.C. office in partnership with LSU Law School.

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“I hope that as people begin to tell the story about the civil rights movement and continue telling that story, that we expand it to include what happened in Baton Rouge and other communities that may not be in the mainstream narrative,” Professor Tyson said in an interview with NBC News.

The film highlights the power of consumer activism and protest and the work of Rev. T. J. Jemison, one of the leaders of the boycott. The documentary details the immediate and long term implications of the boycott, which cost the Baton Rouge Bus Service $1600 a day and pushed the agency to the verge of collapse by day eight of the protest.

Although racial tension in Baton Rouge was high, the boycott served as a template for prominent civil rights figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. in conceiving future protests.

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Tyson, along with Debo Adegbile, a partner at the WilmerHale law firm and Anika Navaroli Collier, a senior campaign manager for media and economic justice at Color of Change, an online racial justice organization spoke on a panel following the screening. The discussion was moderated by Vanita Gupta, President of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Image: 1957 Bus Boycott
From left to right: the Revs. T.J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, La.; C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, Fla.; F.L. Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Ala.; Martin Luther King, Jr., are seen leading a conference of southern black leaders studying bus integration, Jan. 11, 1957, in Atlanta. The group telegraphed Pres. Eisenhower to come south to aid their cause. AP file

Adegbile, who previously served as a litigator at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, spoke to NBC News about the necessity of lawyers, political leaders, religious leaders, and those organizing on the streets to work together to plan and execute a successful protest and how crucial it is to learn from past events like the Baton Rouge bus boycott.

“History plays a very important role in preparing us to engage in the issues of today, and in the absence of studying history and how we’ve come to this point, you leave on the table a very important tool in becoming successful in your current endeavors,” Adegbile said.

This sentiment was echoed by Collier, who said that it is essential to honor the sacrifices of those that came before us and reflect on their contributions to society.

“None of us got here on our own,” Collier told NBC News. “We come to this place, we come to this moment and we come to this world on the shoulders of so many people — we have so many ancestors who came before us that paved ways and fought for what I call the last iteration of the same fight.”

Image: Mary Briscoe (left) and Sandra Ann Jones are escorted by the Rev. T.J. Jemison
Mary Briscoe (left) and Sandra Ann Jones are escorted by the Rev. T.J. Jemison, local African American leader, after they came out of jail in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on April 4, 1960 on $1500 bond each on charge of disturbing the peace. The two girls had remained in jail with seven other Southern University students since last week as a result of lunch counter sit-ins. AP file

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Tyson also said that while the internet and social media have emerged as powerful tools in organizing protests, young activists today ultimately need to realize the value of face-to-face interactions and incorporate past methods used by protesters in their own activism work.

Tyson said it takes more than taking selfies at a march to make protests count; learning more about a seminal event like the Baton Rouge bus boycott is important for young people as they take on today’s challenges and continue fighting to advance civil rights.

“We are at a particular moment where we are seeing a resurgence of protests, of resistance, of social justice movements around a host of issues and young people are leading the way and it’s a very exciting time,” Tyson said.

“What I want them to know is that there is an unbroken through line from this history to their contemporary struggles and the ways in which they imagine justice and freedom for their own purposes in this time.”

This story was published in partnership with the March on Washington Film Festival Freedom's Children Student Journalists program.

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