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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Civil Rights Pioneer Dies at 95



Rev. T. J. Jemison, Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies at 95

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The Rev. T. J. Jemison, a civil rights pioneer who organized a 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge, La., that foreshadowed the one set off byRosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala., and who went on to lead the nation’s largest black Baptist organization into liberal political activism, died on Nov. 15 in Baton Rouge. He was 95.
Associated Press
Rev. T. J. Jemison, center, was known for his political skills in the early days of the civil rights struggle.
His son, Theodore J. Jemison Jr., confirmed the death.
Mr. Jemison was one of a handful of black clergymen recognized as a leader of the first generation of the civil rights movement. He was a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth.
As president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. from 1982 to 1994, Mr. Jemison ushered into being the World Baptist Center in Nashville, the first national headquarters of a predominantly black church in the United States. But in 1991 he lost much of his church-based support by speaking out in defense of the boxer Mike Tyson after he was charged with rape.
Mr. Jemison was known for his political skills in the early days of the civil rights struggle, displaying a mix of charm and toughness that served him well in leading what historians say was apparently the movement’s first large-scale bus boycott.
Appointed pastor of the Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge in 1949, Mr. Jemison led voter registration efforts, beginning in 1950, that resulted in improved municipal services and the construction of a dozen new schools for black citizens.
In 1953 he persuaded the Baton Rouge City Council to abolish a public transportation rule barring blacks from sitting in the first 10 rows of public buses. When bus drivers went on strike to protest the change, Mr. Jemison led an eight-day boycott, starting on June 20.
Blacks accounted for 80 percent of the city’s bus ridership, and they were tired of having to stand up while some or even all of the first 10 rows went empty, Mr. Jemison said. “We were not necessarily interested at that time in ending segregation,” he said in an interview in 1993. “We were after seats.”
The dispute ended in a compromise: Only the first two rows would be reserved for whites.
Dr. King, the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, contacted Mr. Jemison in late 1954 for advice on managing a citywide bus boycott.
“Knowing that Jemison and his associates had set up an effective private car pool, I put in a long-distance telephone call to ask him for suggestions for a similar pool in Montgomery,” Dr. King wrote in a 1958 memoir, “Stride Toward Freedom.” Mr. Jemison’s tutorial was “invaluable” in winning that fight, Dr. King added.
The yearlong Montgomery bus boycott, set off by Ms. Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white person, was the beginning of the end of separate-but-equal accommodations in the South.
The National Baptist Convention, with 26,000 member congregations and seven million congregants, had been a nonpolitical organization when Mr. Jemison was elected president in 1982 (his father, the Rev. David Jemison, had been president from 1940 to 1953). But Mr. Jemison quickly began staking out firm, liberal positions on race-related issues, accusing President Ronald Reagan of giving “respectability to racism,” supporting the presidential candidacies of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 and, in 1991, opposing the Persian Gulf war, which he called “a fight over oil.”
When Desiree Washington, an 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant, accused Mr. Tyson of rape in 1991, Mr. Jemison described him as a victim of racial stereotyping, prompting other church leaders and women’s groups to criticize his support as insensitive to Ms. Washington. They also accused of him of being prejudiced by Mr. Tyson’s offer (never received) of $5 million toward the building of the convention’s $12 million headquarters in Nashville.
Mr. Tyson was convicted and served three years of a six-year prison sentence.
Mr. Jemison was later indicted, though never tried, on federal perjury charges in connection with an alleged attempt to bribe Ms. Washington to drop the charges.
After stepping down as president of the Baptist convention in 1994, he told interviewers that he was especially proud of his role in building the group’s headquarters because it fulfilled a dream of his father’s.
Theodore Judson Jemison was born on Aug. 1, 1918, in Selma, Ala., the youngest of the six children of Henrietta and David Jemison. His father was also the pastor of Selma’s Tabernacle Baptist Church. The younger Mr. Jemison attended segregated public schools and graduated from the historically black Alabama State University in Montgomery before earning a divinity degree at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va.
He remained the pastor of the Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge for 54 years. He retired in 2003.
Besides his son, Mr. Jemison is survived by two daughters, Dianne Jemison Pollard and Betty Jane Wagner, and nine grandchildren. His wife, Celestine Catlett Jemison, died in 2006.
Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion and African studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Jemison’s contributions to the civil rights cause were never widely known primarily as a result of a decision he made in 1961 as secretary of the Baptist convention.
That year, the group’s president, the Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, and Dr. King were bitterly divided over the organization’s role in the civil rights struggle; Mr. Jackson opposed involving the church in it, and Mr. Jemison sided with him.
His decision secured his place in the church hierarchy — he remained secretary for the next two decades — but forced him to reduce his role in the movement, though he said he disagreed with Mr. Jackson’s views and would eventually change the organization’s policies after succeeding Mr. Jackson in 1982.
“It’s felt that he had a sense of loyalty to the organization because of his father’s association with it,” Professor Butler said.

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