Martha White, a Civil Rights activist and the woman who sparked the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, has passed away. According to a statement from a spokesperson, she died on Saturday (June 5) at 99 years old.
The mayor of Baton Rouge and several fellow Civil Rights pioneers reflected on her impact earlier this week. On June 15, 1953; White was 23 years old and returning home from her job as a housekeeper. According to the statement, White walked miles to and from the bus stop each day and, after spending all day on her feet, she decided to take the bus’ only open seat, which happened to be reserved for white passengers. When the bus driver ordered her to move, she refused and another Black woman came and sat next to her in solidarity.
The driver threatened to have the two women arrested and police, the bus company and civil rights activist Rev. T.J. Jemison arrived at the scene. The city of Baton Rouge had recently passed an ordinance to desegregate the buses, meaning White was within her legal rights to sit in whatever bus seat she chose.
However, to protest the ordinance, bus drivers went on strike and the city ended up reversing the rule. Black activists responded to this with a public boycott, which went on to provide the framework for the famous bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama two years later.
“Martha White undoubtedly shaped our community in Baton Rouge and communities across our nation,” Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said Monday (June 7). “We honor her legacy today and every day.”
“‘Can you imagine working on your feet all day and just wanting to sit down?’” Jemison recalled White telling him in an interview with The Advocate. “She was the same way from when she was young to when she was 90 years old. She knew that what she did was for the good of everyone in Baton Rouge.”