“Mugshot of Jo Ann Robinson in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott”, February 21, 1956, from Montgomery County Archives via the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Throughout our series, we’ve heard the stories of three courageous women from the state of Alabama: Recy Taylor, Rosa Parks, and Claudette Colvin. Today we write about Jo Ann Robinson for our final installment.
For years, Jo Ann Robinson had been upset about the Montgomery buses. She and her friends were frequently harassed, assaulted, and insulted by the white bus drivers, despite the fact that black riders made up the vast majority of riders. They wanted things to change. So, they founded an organization: the Women’s Political Council. “We knew that if something hadn’t been done by the women,” Robinson remembered, “there wouldn’t be anything done.”
Jo Ann Robinson had been born in 1912 in Georgia and trained as a teacher. She earned a master’s degree in English literature from Atlanta University before accepting a teaching position in 1949 at Alabama State College in Montgomery. When she got to Montgomery, Robinson joined the Women’s Political Council, founded three years earlier. By late 1950, Robinson had succeeded Mary Fair Burks as the president of the Women’s Political Council, which, by that time, had three chapters around the city. Robinson encouraged the group to focus on the buses, and they began to bring complaints about the cruelty they experienced before the Montgomery City Commission. The women even began planning a boycott of the buses and informed the mayor to expect one. But they needed an opening, a catalyst. Soon, they got one.
“That night…the evening that Rosa Parks was arrested, Fred Gray called me,” Robinson recalled in an interview. The message was clear: “you have the plans, put them into operation.” She did. “I, as the President of the main body of the Women’s Political Council,” Robinson explained, “got on the phone.” She called friends, civil leaders, ministers, schoolteachers, and informed them of the plans for a boycott. Then, she and others got to work spreading the word.
“Leaflet calling for boycott”, December 2, 1955 by Jo Anna Robinson from George Mason University Center for History and New Media and Stanford University School of Education, “Rosa Parks,” Historical Thinking Matters.
Jo Ann Robinson stayed up all night mimeographing over 50,000 handbills calling for a massive one-day boycott. They read:
Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down.
It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped.
Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter or your mother.
This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of schools for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses on Monday.
Her message was clear, and with the women’s extensive networks, the boycott was a success. Of course, this one-day collective action turned into a massive 13-month long boycott that would change the nation and introduce the world to Martin Luther King, Jr. But none of it would have happened if the women had not told their stories, made calls, stayed up late working on the mimeograph, and organized. Dr. King himself was in awe of Jo Ann Robinson, saying “Apparently indefatigable, she, perhaps more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest.”
We have heard the stories of four remarkable women: Recy Taylor, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, and Jo Ann Robinson. They are inspirational—strong, beautiful, creative, and resilient. But their lives also reveal a lot about the struggle for racial justice. From a ghastly sexual assault in 1942 to a massive boycott in 1955, they show slow progress made despite staunch opposition. They reveal the intersectional obstacles faced by Black women, which, sadly, endure to the present. They reveal how friendships and mentoring and collaboration sustained activism and nurtured the movement. They also reveal how women, too often pushed to the edges of national memory, or caricatured—real flesh and blood women—built and continue to build a more perfect union for us all.
P.S.: Inspired by the activism of Rosa Parks and each of these women, we’ve partnered with basic. to create a limited-edition t-shirt. 100% of the profits from this piece will be donated to the Equal Justice Initiative to support their work of challenging prevailing narratives about race in America through extensive research, documentation, and educational efforts.
This post is part of a series written for the Alabama Chanin Journal written by Dr. Ansley Quiros. Ansley is a new contributing writer to the Journal. Get to know her here. Read more from her here. And follow her here.