Martha White, 99, Dies; Before Rosa Parks, She Sparked a Bus Boycott

Two years later, Dr. King visited Mr. Jemison’s Mount Zion Church to learn how the boycott had been organized. Ms. White was among those who sat in the pews to see him, one of her nephews, John Denman, said in an interview.

Dr. King would use some of the same tactics in Montgomery — organizing alternative transportation methods, involving the churches and keeping the protests nonviolent. That boycott, which lasted 381 days and ended with a triumphant court ruling, diverted attention from Baton Rouge.

But over time, various writings and theatrical productions, and especially a 2004 documentary by Louisiana Public Broadcasting called “Signpost to Freedom: The 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott,” have reclaimed its place in history.

Martha White was born on April 2, 1922, in Woodville, Miss., in the southwest part of the state, one of seven children of Ephraim and Viola White, who were sharecroppers. Her mother died when Martha was in her early teens, and afterward her uncles brought her and some of her siblings to Baton Rouge. She later earned her high school equivalency diploma.

Ms. White had a brief marriage that ended in divorce and went to work as a housekeeper. With her wages, she was able to buy her own home in Baton Rouge, where she lived for most of the rest of her life.

In addition to Mr. Denman, she is survived by several other nieces and nephews. One of her siblings, Isaac White Sr., a barber, ran White’s Barber College in Mobile, Ala., and became a pillar of the community. He died in 2019.

Ms. White’s decision to sit in the white section of the bus had a lasting effect on the Baton Rouge Bus Company. Not only did it change the rules for passengers; it also eventually hired Black employees. Mr. Denman got a job there in 1966 and rose to manager before he retired after 43 years.

Some of her other relatives still work at the company, now called Capital Area Transit System, Mr. Denman said, adding, “Her bloodline is deep into that bus line.”


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