Jo Ann Robinson and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Jo Ann Robinson and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

March is Women’s History Month. We celebrate the lives of remarkable women, both the well-known and those whose stories have been largely forgotten. One such woman is Jo Ann Robinson, a largely unsung heroine who played a key role in the historic 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Jo Ann Gibson Robinson was born on April 17, 1912, in Culloden, Georgia, the youngest of 12 children. She distinguished herself early as the valedictorian of her high school class, and she later became the first person in her family to graduate from college. She attended Fort Valley State College and fulfilled her dream of becoming a public school teacher in Macon, Georgia. She taught in Macon for five years while earning a master’s degree from Atlanta University. In addition, she pursued English studies at Columbia University in New York. After teaching in Texas, Robinson accepted a position at Alabama State College in Montgomery, Alabama. It was in Montgomery that she became active in the Women’s Political Council (“WPC”). WPC was a local civic organization for African American professional women that was dedicated to fostering women’s involvement in civic affairs, increasing voter registration in the city’s black community, and aiding women who were victims of sexual assault.

In 1949, soon after arriving in Montgomery, Robinson was verbally attacked by a public city bus driver for sitting in the front “whites only” section of the bus. This event had a profound effect on her, and the following year, when she was elected president of WPC, Robinson made desegregating the city’s buses one of the organization’s top priorities. Her precise response was an attempt to start a protest boycott.

The WPC repeatedly complained to Montgomery city leaders about unfair seating practices and abusive bus driver conduct, but their complaints went nowhere. Nonetheless, Robinson continued as an outspoken critic of the treatment of African-Americans on public transportation.  She also was active in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Following Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and Rosa Parks’ arrest in December 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white person who was standing, Robinson and a few associates leaped into action. That same evening, with Mrs. Parks’ permission, Robinson stayed up copying over 50,000 handbills at her church, calling for a one-day bus boycott because of the treatment of Rosa Parks. The handbills were distributed around the city in black communities. The one-day boycott was a success, and for this reason, the campaign was continued, this time with the involvement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In order to protect her position and her colleagues at Alabama State, Robinson purposely stayed out of the limelight, working diligently in the background organizing and providing transportation for boycotters. 

Robinson became the target of several acts of intimidation. In February 1956, a local police officer threw a stone through the window of her house. Two weeks later, another police officer poured acid on her car. Finally, the Governor ordered the state police to protect the boycott leaders. 

Although African Americans represented over 75 percent of Montgomery’s bus ridership, the city resisted complying with the protesters’ demands. The boycott lasted for over a year because the bus company simply would not give into the demands of the protesters. Initially, the demands did not include changing the segregation laws, rather, the group demanded simple courtesy, the hiring of black bus drives, and a first-come, first- seated policy, with whites entering and filling seats from the front and African Americans from the rear. Ultimately, however, the NAACP sued the city in federal district court seeking to have the busing segregation laws totally invalidated, and they succeeded. The boycott continued until December 20, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated seating on buses unconstitutional.

The Montgomery bus boycott was one of the first successful protests of segregation in the deep south, inspiring other nonviolent civil rights protests. It also established Dr. King as a prominent national figure. Robinson was especially proud of the role that women played in the boycott’s success, saying: “Women’s leadership was no less important to the development of the Montgomery Bus Boycott than was the male and minister-dominated leadership.”

Not long after the boycott ended, Robinson resigned from her position at Alabama State College and moved on to Grambling College in Louisiana, and later to public schools in Los Angeles, California. Robinson published a memoir entitled The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Woman Who Started It in 1987. In it, she expressed her great pride in the success of the boycott.  She remained actively involved in her community and in local politics until her death in Los Angeles on August 29, 1992.