1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott receives national attention

1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott receives national attention
The crowd listens in the McKinley Alumni Center. (Source: WAFB)
The crowd listens in the McKinley Alumni Center. (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Baton Rouge joins a list of 20 Civil Rights sites honored with writer Toni Morrison's "Bench by the Road" Commemorative Bench.

Under a brilliant blue sky, organizers gathered to pray and cut the ribbon on the literal bench that will mark the spot.

National Morrison Society Bench speaker Dr. Carolyn Denard told the crowd gathered in the Mckinley Alumni Center that the benches are symbols of importance to our future memory. They grew out of a 1989 comment Morrison had made in an interview in advance of her fifth novel "Beloved".

She noted the severe lack of museums and historic sites dedicated to Civil Rights.

"There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or skyscraper lobby. There's no 300-foot tower. There's no small bench by the road."

Denard says Baton Rouge's 1953 Bus Boycott may be a new listing on the civil rights important places, but ranks up there.

She said, "Our hope is that this project will help the world know the distinguished and historic role that the Baton Rouge bus boycott played in providing the template for what would become the most successful non-violent strategy for protest of the civil rights movement. The men and women who took a stand here in 1953, organizing and implementing the bus boycott, were trailblazers."

Denard said the Morrison Society is publishing a book of 20 bench commemorative sites and Baton Rouge will be included.

Keynote speaker Chris Tyson, a teacher at the LSU Law School and son of the late Federal Judge Ralph Tyson, remembered his childhood growing up in Old South Baton Rouge neighborhood, the places and people who populated the times for establishing civil rights. He noted that Baton Rouge has a history of sustained civil rights activism, and the McKinley High School football team members who were sitting behind the speaker and his lecturn were visibly surprised when Tyson told about a later courageous  demonstration by college students.

"We know that in 1960 Southern University students stood up and held sit-ins at the Kress counter downtown.

For that they were expelled from Southern University, and while some were allowed to re-enter and continue their education, the scars of that event still exist in this community."

Pastor Raymond Jetson had emphasized that everyday people stood, not as individuals, but as a whole for their futures and the rights for themselves and their children.  That everyone can be proud of what people in Baton Rouge did in 1953, and make sure the future generations know their history.
Grace Robvais, a student at Dufrocq Elementary snapped a picture as the blue ribbon was cut on the new bench. She, no doubt, learned how vibrant and interesting our own Baton Rouge boycott and civil rights movement is.

Tyson had issued a call for action in his speech.

"There is as much a new for collective action today, as there was in 1953, he said.

"We live in a Baton Rouge that has 40-percent child poverty. We live in a Baton Rouge that has one of the top ten murder rates per capita, in the nation. One of the top 10 AIDS rates per capita in the nation. We remain segregated by race and income, and while the city has stretched far beyond the boudaries that definied it in 1953, it as if we live in two cities," he continued.

"One that offers the best possible life chances and quality of life in the State of Louisiana and hundreds of feet away, not miles, hundreds of feet, the worst. What do we say about our times? And in 60 years will someone care to place a bench by the side the road for the work that we engage in today? "

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