Jo Ann Robinson – An Unsung Hero Behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Born on April 17, 1912, in Culloden, Georgia, Robinson distinguished herself early as the valedictorian of her high school class, went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from college, and became  a teacher.  She taught in the Macon, Georgia, public schools for fives years while earning a master’s degree from Atlanta University. 

She moved to Montgomery in 1949 to teach at Alabama State College.  In Montgomery, she became active in the Women’s Political Council (WPC), 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 rape of assault.

Soon after arriving in Montgomery, Robinson was verbally attacked by a public bus driver for sitting in the “whites only” section of the bus. When she became the WPC’s president the following year, she made desegregating the city’s buses one of the organization’s top priorities.

The WPC repeatedly complained to the Montgomery city leaders about unfair seating practices and abusive driver conduct. But the group’s concerns were dismissed, leading Robinson to begin laying plans for a bus boycott by the city’s African American community. 

Following Rosa Park’s arrest in December 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, Ms. Robinson and two of her students stayed up all night to mimeograph 35,000 leaflets calling for a one-day boycott for Montgomery’s buses.   The leaflets read, in part: “Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down… This has to be stopped.  Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses they would not operate…If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter or mother.  We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial [of Rosa Parks]…. Please stay off all buses on Monday.” (From King A Life by J. Eig)

Ms. Robinson holds one other important connection to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that changed the course of our history.  When asked by Fred Gray, Mrs. Park’s lawyer, who could facilitate the potentially contentious boycott planning talks among the Black leadership of the city, Jo Ann Robinson suggested the fairly new pastor of her church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Much of the above info was taken from the website of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, )