While many people know Rosa Parks as the face of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, few recognize the name of Jo Ann Robinson, the moving force behind the organization of the boycott. Ms. Robinson was active in the Montgomery community, a member of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin L. King, Jr. later served as pastor and in the Women’s Political Council, a group designed to motivate African American women to take political action.
When Robinson became president of the WPC in 1950, she focused the organization’s efforts on desegregating buses, after having experienced humiliating treatment by a bus driver several years earlier. Working with attorney Fred Gray as her adviser, she met with the then-mayor of Montgomery, William A. Gayle but the city’s leadership was not interested in integrating buses, so Robinson conceptualized a boycott.
Following the arrest of Rosa Parks on Friday, December 1, 1955, Ms. Robinson, with the help of two students, created and mimeographed more than 50,000 flyers calling on Montgomery’s African American residents to boycott the buses on Monday, December 5 in support of Mrs. Parks. They were widely distributed over the next several days through black owned businesses and churches and by word of mouth.
When the boycott proved successful, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), led by Martin Luther King, Jr., came to manage its continuation. Subsequently, Ms. Robinson was appointed to the MIA’s executive board and produced the organization’s weekly newsletter at King’s personal request.
For her role as a leader of the boycott, Ms. Robinson was arrested and targeted with violence; police officers threw a rock into her window and poured acid on her car. The harassment became so bad that state police were requested to guard her home. The boycott continued until December 20, 1956, when a federal district court declared segregating seating unconstitutional. The boycott also established King as a figure of national prominence and ushered in an era of nonviolent civil rights protests.