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Martha White (1922–2021), started influential 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott

by Linnea Crowther

Martha White was a housekeeper whose refusal to leave the whites-only section of a bus was the catalyst for a 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Two years before Montgomery

White was on her way home from work on June 15, 1953, when she boarded a city bus and saw just one open seat – in the front row, just behind the driver. Though the seat was in the section reserved for white passengers, White sat, eager to rest after a long day. The bus driver ordered her to move, but she refused, and she was ultimately kicked off the bus and threatened with arrest. But Baton Rouge had recently passed an ordinance desegregating the buses, so White had broken no city laws.

In the aftermath of the incident, the city’s bus drivers went on strike and demanded the city overturn the desegregation ordinance, which they did. In response, the city’s Black community organized a bus boycott. Just eight days later, the bus company responded with more favorable conditions for Black passengers.

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White’s refusal to yield her seat came two and a half years before the more famous incident in Montgomery, Alabama when Rosa Parks (1913–2005) refused to stand for a white passenger. And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was able to use the lessons learned in the Baton Rouge bus boycott to guide the Montgomery bus boycott that followed, visiting the city to learn from the boycott’s organizers.

Notable quote

“It seemed like every police intown was there and the head of the Bus Commission. I vowed never to get back on the bus.” —from a 2005 interview for Southern Digest

Tributes to Martha White

Full obituary: The Advocate

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