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Rev. T.J. Jemison, civil rights leader, dies at 95

25th November 2013   ·   0 Comments

The Rev. T. J. Jemison, a longtime Louisiana pastor, pioneering civil rights leader and founder of one of the nation’s met effective faith-based civil rights organizations, has died. He was 95.

Jemison’s son, Ted Jemison, told The Associated Press that his father, who once served as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., died Friday evening, Nov., 15, of natural causes at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.

REV. T.J. JEMISON

REV. T.J. JEMISON

Theodore Judson Jemison was born in 1918 in Selma, Alabama where his father, the Rev. David V. Jemison, was the pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. He came from a family of prominent ministers and strong churchgoing women. He attended local segregated schools.

Jemison earned a bachelor’s degree from Alabama State University, a historically Black institution, where he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the same fraternity Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a member of. Jemison earned a divinity degree at Virginia Union University to prepare for the ministry, and later enrolled in graduate courses at New York University.

In 1953, while serving as pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., a post he held for 54 years, Jemison helped lead the first civil rights boycott of segregated seating on public buses. The organization of free rides, coordinated by churches, was a model used later in 1955-1956 by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. Jemison was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.

Although the critical role Rev. Jemison played in laying the foundation for King’s successful boycott are still not widely known or celebrated, in 2003, the city of Baton Rouge commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Baton Rouge bus boycott.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sought Rev. Jemison’s advice when organizing the famous bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., two years later, Ted Jemison said of his father.

One thing King wanted to know was how the leaders of the Baton Rouge boycott arranged carpool rides for Blacks so they could avoid using the buses, Ted Jemison told The Advocate.

King wrote about the Rev. T.J. Jemison in his book, Stride Toward Freedom.

When King became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded in New Orleans, T.J. Jemison was the organization’s first secretary, his son said.

“He came up in a time when there was overt racism, but he always preached togetherness. He also believed that everybody deserves a fair share. I think that’s one of the greatest things about him. He never changed his tune. He believed in a man’s worth, regardless of skin color,” Ted Jemison said Nov. 16 in a telephone interview.

Ted Jemison said his father also was a kind and giving man.

“He made so many people happy by giving up what he had, personally, and he enjoyed doing that,” the son said.

T.J. Jemison also served as president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the largest Black religious organization in the U.S. from 1982 to 1994, and met with seven U.S. presidents during his lifetime, Ted Jemison said.

Jemison is credited with overseeing the building of Baptist World Center in Nashville, Tenn., the headquarters of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., during his tenure as president.

Todd Sterling, a trustee at Mount Zion First Baptist Church, said T.J. Jemison will be remembered as visionary leader.”

“The world has lost an icon in the Baptist ministry and the civil rights arena,” Sterling told The Associated Press. “He was a pioneer in race relations.”

While the Baton Rouge boycott is not as well-known and did not last as long as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it sparked a movement that led to the birth of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement.

The Advocated reported that eats in the front of Baton Rouge city buses were for white riders only. Even if those “white” seats were empty, Black riders had to stand if seats set aside for them in the back of the bus were full.

In a 2003 newspaper story marking the boycott’s 50th anniversary, 84-year-old Freddie Green recalled sitting guard duty with a shotgun on Jemison’s front porch. Green remembered crosses burned in the minister’s yard and at the church.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s top aides and a longtime friend of Rev, Jemison, said Jemison’s contributions to making life better for those who followed extend far beyond voting and civil rights and into the world of college sports. “When LSU plays Alabama,” Jackson, president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, told The Advocate. “there’s some T.J. Jemison in that. He laid the groundwork for bringing down the Sugarcane Curtain that led to Black players playing” on formerly all-white college football teams.

Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden remembered Rev. Jemison as an engaging minister with a great sense of humor.

“He had that big hearty laugh,” Holden told The Advocate. “When something really was funny, you would know — you could be in another room — and you would know the big hearty laugh.”

Holden, who considered Rev. Jemison a mentor, said he learned from the affable civil rights minister that nothing of lasting significance could be accomplished without the presence of God. “If more young people, not just in Baton Rouge but throughout the nation, would just take a moment, go back and read the history of this man,” Holden said, “maybe that would get them to turn their lives away from any violence and turn it directly towards reaching out to the community to make it better.”

“A lot of young people may not know much about Rev. Jemison, but all of the freedom fighters and anyone who is serious about learning the history of the Civil Rights Movement know exactly who he was and what he contributed to the struggle,” the Rev. Raymond Brown, a New Orleans-based community activist and president of National Action Now, told The Louisiana Weekly. “He stuck his neck out there and was on the front lines of the struggle for civil rights two years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He opened a lot of doors for a lot of people and forever changed the course of American history.”

“He was a trailblazer and … a man that left a mark on our history and really taught many of us as young African Americans the importance of being able to stand up for what you believe in,” Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker told The Advocate. “Not being afraid, but at the same time doing things in a peaceful manner that allowed for a community to heal.”

“We’re expecting Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights icons to fly in for the funeral on Saturday,” Ted Jemison, Rev. Jemison’s son, told WAFB 9 News.

Ted Jemison also said last week that while Mt. Zion First Baptist Church could only accommodate 1,200 worshippers, it was the only place where his dad’s homegoing services could be held because it was the only house of worship the Rev. T.J. Jemison built.

“[T]here was no other place this celebration could be,” Ted Jemison said.

Rev. Jemison was laid in repose at the State Capitol Rotunda in Baton Rouge on Friday. Nov. 22. from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

His wake was held Friday night at 7:00 p.m. at Mount Zion First Baptist Church, 356 East Boulevard, in Baton Rouge. His funeral was scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 23, at Mount Zion at 11:00 a.m.

This article originally published in the November 25, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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