T. J. Jemison led a bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1953, which served as a model for the Montgomery bus boycott. Martin Luther King called Jemison three days after the Montgomery protest began, and reported in his memoir that “his painstaking description of the Baton Rouge experience was invaluable” (King, 75). Jemison later recalled the importance of his friend, King, to the movement: “The Christian rearing had given him a burning desire that the whites could not understand. It was sort of like a peace that the world can’t give and the world can’t take away” (Jemison, 12 April 1972).
Jemison was born in Selma, Alabama, the youngest of the six children of Henrietta and David V. Jemison, who served as president of the National Baptist Convention (NBC) from 1940 to 1953. Jemison earned a BS from Alabama State College in Montgomery, Alabama, and a Master’s of Divinity from Virginia Union University. He became pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Staughton, Virginia, in 1945, and organized the first local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter there. He was called to pastor Mount Zion First Baptist Church of Baton Rouge in 1949.
In early 1953, after years of enduring a Jim Crow system that mandated that black passengers stand behind empty seats reserved for whites on busy bus routes, Jemison and other black leaders in Baton Rouge convinced the city council to modify the seating ordinance to a first-come, first-served basis. The bus drivers, however, did not want to enforce the new system. The state attorney general ruled that the new ordinance violated state segregation laws and, in June 1953, black people in Baton Rouge boycotted the buses for eight days. Mass meetings were held every night, and carpools were organized. The boycott ended with a compromise that allowed mostly first-come, first-served seating, with the first two short rows designated for whites, while the rear long rows were for blacks. Dissatisfied with the mild reform, Jemison took the city to court and eventually won full integration of the city’s buses. After King spoke to Jemison in December 1955, he took Jemison’s suggestion that the Montgomery Improvement Association transportation committee help to organize the carpools.
Jemison was one of the founding members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served on the organization’s executive board until the late 1950s, when his duties as NBC secretary increased. He held the post until 1982, when he ousted J. H. Jackson as president. The relationship between King and Jemison became strained in 1961 when Jemison chose to remain loyal to Jackson as King and his allies turned away from the NBC and formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
Jemison’s election in 1982, however, signaled the end of NBC’s conservative stance and brought the organization more in line with those, like King, who favored social gospel Christianity. On this subject Jemison stated: “I feel that the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., and the philosophy of Dr. King can be reunited” (Carter, 22). Jemison served as president until 1994, when term limits prevented his reelection.